The halls of St. Peter’s School are lined with frames that hold photographed highlights from each school year—athletic competitions, scenes from plays, and the like. Of these, the ones from the late 1950s have pictures missing, notably those of a flamboyant musician and a star “All Rounder” at sports and studies. All that remain are captions that say “Farrokh Bulsara.”
In time, even that name will go missing. Freddie, Bulsara’s nickname, eclipsed his original moniker, and the last name he adopted reflected his temperamental character. Three decades after Mercury attended St. Peter’s, I wandered down its hallways as an eight-year-old who had started at the boarding school at about the same age as the rock star.
Like Farrokh, I too had been “sent back to India” from the diaspora. I often stared up at the frames, wondering who the boy in the missing pictures had been.
The Bulsaras, Parsis from Gujarat, worked in Zanzibar, East Africa, where Farrokh was born on September 5, 1946. Already from an Indian minority culture, the colonial Asian-African displacement further isolated the Bulsaras. In sending their son to school in India, even if it was a British institution, Farrokh’s parents might have been attempting to retain their roots and acculturate their offspring.
The school in India reflected the Bulsaras’ own displaced multiculturality. St. Peter’s attracted students from all over India and the diaspora, making for a culturally, but not necessarily economically, varied student body. The postcolonial diversity departed from the intent of the school’s original purpose: it had once been named The European Boys’ School. The name change notwithstanding, the student body continued to be exclusively male.
Memories of Freddie lived on long past his tenure at St. Peter’s, his eccentricities so at odds with the ostensibly staid school, one that still held on to its British colonial era character. It was here that Freddie Mercury learned to become British even before his family immigrated to England in the 1960s.
Institutions such as St. Peter’s, which in 2004 celebrated its centenary, arguably followed Lord Macaulay’s famous 1835 call for education that would create “a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.” This attempted hybridity reveals a class-based strain of Indianness, but also the manufacturing of British identities on other shores. Mercury’s transnationalism blurred these lines. One wonders if the spandex-clad, and sexually provocative musician was the prime subject Macaulay had in mind when he wrote his Minute on Indian Education.
Mercury’s vanished Indianness as he rose to fame in England has been the subject of much speculation. On the one hand, it is undeniable that his Persian-Parsi background, manifested in the fair colour of his skin, likely allowed the entertainer to pass for being Anglo. There was also the name change: “Farrokh Bulsara, Rock Star” was presumably not going to cut it in popular mainstream culture during the heightened racial climate of 1970s Britain. Those were the formative years of Queen, the band that Mercury came to front.
Concurrently, the political tide was turning. The Iron Lady, Conservative Prime Minister Thatcher, ascended to office at the end of the decade.
But on the other hand there are the vague but still cognisable cultural self-references.
There are Mercury’s orientalised lyrics with Islamic allusions in the songs “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Mustapha.” These fuzzily signal a Persian-South Asianness, where Koranic and Middle Eastern themes hint at a historically multicultural Indian subcontinent. The lyrics draw a connection between the many Persian influences on Indic culture, though the references are not specifically Parsi. Stylistically, the baroque flourishes of Queen’s repertoire in such songs as “Bohemian Rhapsody” are akin to the Arabesque excesses of Mughal-era art and architecture. Even in his choice of name, the performer stuck with Freddie, the nickname acquired at his Indian school and which had emerged from “Farrokh.” The inventive “Mercury” suggests the mythical and questions the assumption that some names are more authentically Indian than others. This can hardly be the case in a subcontinent that has served as a major confluence for people of so many cultures and religious faiths. Yet, what is inescapable is that he felt his name needed changing.
Despite his light complexion, Mercury’s dark and dense moustache, familiar to us simply as “The Indian Moustache” for its ubiquitousness, also intimates other possibilities. It is probable that Freddie had discovered his sexuality much before arriving England, perchance at an all-boys school in India. Mercury’s moustache, figuratively and subversively, represented an affectation of masculinity, evidenced in such Western gay visual and popular cultures as Tom of Finland illustrations and the music of The Village People. The singer’s follicular trademark could be read as both homosexual and desi.
Finally, there’s the band’s name: Queen. It juxtaposes the image of England’s leader alongside queer parlance for flamboyancy. Mercury’s position as a postcolonial queer immigrant, born and schooled in the colonies, and then culturally ruling the British airwaves, challenged the old guard as represented by Her Majesty. To borrow the title of the controversial song by Mercury’s contemporaries, the Sex Pistols, “God Save the Queen…”
This year Mercury would have been 65. November 24, 2011 will mark the 20th anniversary of his passing from the AIDS virus in the 30th anniversary year of the disease’s advent.
Mercury did not reveal that he had the disease until the day before he died. It was suppressed from public knowledge like so much else in his life. What remains is the ambivalence that surrounded Freddie’s identity. Perhaps it was by design, or maybe it was an ongoing, self-reflective negotiation—the kind seen in the opening words of Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia: “… I am an Englishmen born and bred, almost.”
Freddie’s identity is like the missing pictures at St. Peter’s School—memories framed by everything else around them. I once animatedly remarked to an elderly Goan woman in England, upon finding out that she had lived in Zanzibar: “Freddie Mercury was born there!” I then apologized for the oblique reference, thinking she might be unaware of who he was. Instead, she replied, “Yes, I used to see little Farrokh running outside my house.” The complete picture may be missing, but Freddie’s identity continues to unsettle easy assumption. Long live Queen.
R. Benedito Ferrao was born in Kuwait, has family roots in East Africa, and now lives in England. Unlike Mercury, the only singing he does is in the shower.