A Letter to Farrokh Bulsara
You and I share so much of our cultural heritage that it’s almost laughable. Your parents were Parsi (ethnic Persians) Zoroastrians from Gujrat and my parents are Muslims from Gujrat. Your family lived in Zanzibar and my dad was born in Zanzibar, in fact, he was born in the exact same district that your family lived in, Stonetown. Your family fled the 1964 Zanzibar Revolution where thousands of Indians and Arabs were killed to England and my family fled to Pakistan. You were 17 when you moved to England. I was not born yet when my family moved to Pakistan. But eight years after I was born, my family ended up in a Western country just like yours did, except mine landed in the US. And thus began the formation of our mottled and confused identities.
At the age of 8 you were sent to a British-style boarding school called St. Peter’s near Bombay and it is at this school that you changed your name from Farrokh to Freddie. At the age of 6 I was sent to a British school in Mozambique called The International School in anticipation of my family moving to America so I could learn English. But I did not change my name until later, when we moved to the US and people could not pronounce my name – Tazmine – so I changed it to the much more recognizable and Westernized Taz, like the name of the Disney character.
You were a British citizen at birth because you were born in British India and you remained a British citizen throughout your life. In more ways than one. I was born almost exactly one year after Mozambique gained independence from the Portuguese. But both of us were affected (and entraced) by our colonizers from day one.
You were trained in playing piano in India and you formed your first band, the Hectics, when you were 12 at St. Peter’s. It is rumored that one of the influences in your budding years as a musician was the legendary Bollywood playback singer Lata Mangeshkar. But then one of your former bandmates from the Hectics has said that “that is a lot of rubbish. The only music (you) listened to, and played, was Western pop music,” so even this tenuous acknowledgement of your Indian heritage hangs in the balance in your legacy.
When your family moved to Feltham, Middlesex, England when you were 17, you went to college and worked at Heathrow, just like a lot of immigrants do. A few years after you broke free from the typical immigrant survival story and followed your passion for music. When you were 25 you formed the band that would define your career and your legacy, Queen. It is at this time you decided to change your last name from Bulsara to Mercury and your identity as a “white” British man was born.
In the footnotes of your Wikipedia entry it says this about the name (and heritage) you renounced:
- The Bulsara family gets its name from Bulsar, a city and district that is now in the Indian state of Gujarat and is today officially known as Valsad. In the 17th century, Bulsar was one of the five centers of the Zoroastrian religion (the other four were also in what is today Gujarat) and consequently “Bulsara” is a relatively common name amongst Parsi Zoroastrians.
I have to admit that it hurts that you renounced the unique heritage that you and I so unexpectedly share, that we are both Indians that lived in Africa. You passed as white and you lived in a different time where perhaps being forthright about being Persian/Indian would not have served your astronomical musical career.
And perhaps the choice to hide your complex and decidedly non-Western heritage wasn’t so thought-out and conscious. Perhaps it was just part of your journey to find your true self, independent of where you came from. A self that included being gay, something that perhaps wasn’t so welcomed and encouraged in the culture in which you were born. I will never know.
It hurts and I also understand because I did the same thing. I also denied my heritage out in the American public as long as I can remember. I morphed myself and passed as white in my behavior if not in the pigment of my skin. I got rid of my accent like it was a stain that would attract ridicule and derision. I only wore Indian clothes to Indian parties and at the mosque, I was embarrassed to be seen with my mom in public because she wore Indian clothes and was so seemingly unAmerican, and I had crushes on white boys only.
In 2005, I married a white American man with the last name of Loomans, which is an Anglicized version of a Dutch name. At that time I also renounced my last name (and my heritage) and took my American husband’s name, Loomans.
Rejecting my heritage was also part of my journey to find my true self independent of where I came from. A self that includes being a single woman without children, something that perhaps isn’t so welcomed and encouraged in the culture in which I was born.
But as the second half of my life begins, I am setting out on my return journey. Mark Gerzon says about the second half of life in his book Coming into Your Own, “now we yearn for wholeness. We yearn to remember the parts of ourselves that we have forgotten, to nourish those we have starved, to express those we have silenced, and to bring into the light those we have cast into the shadows.”
At the age of 41, six years after my divorce, I am reclaiming my last name Khatri (and my heritage) on my own terms. I have decided to not throw the baby out with the bath water. I am realizing that I can’t be my full true self without re-integrating my cultural heritage back into my life in ways that make sense for me.
And even though we live in a time where white nationalism is on the rise, we also live in a time, consequently, with heightened consciousness of immigrant cultures and how enriching and important they are to any nation. In other words, we live in a time where you don’t have to pretend to be white to survive and thrive in a Western country, as perhaps you did.
As we get older, we become more comfortable in our skin, no matter its color. I wonder, Farrokh, if you would have embarked on a similar return journey that I am now on. I wonder if you would have been proud of your gorgeous heritage and worn it on your sleeve and by doing so would have told the whole damn world that an Indian immigrant can become one of the greatest Western rock stars of all time. And maybe even if you never gave Lata Mangeshkar the time of day in your youth, I wonder if you would have later acknowledged the subconscious influences of your wonderful Persian/Indian/African background on your musical genius.
This is the second footnote on your Wikipedia entry:
- On Mercury’s birth certificate,his parents defined themselves with “Nationality: British Indian” and “Race: Parsi“. The Parsis are an ethnic group of Persian origin and have lived on the Indian Subcontinent for over a thousand years.
I wonder if you had lived long enough, if your cultural origin would not be a mere footnote but a huge part of your story, which I have no doubt it actually was. I wonder if you lived long enough, the world would finally know and acknowledge that one of the 100 Greatest Britons of all time was really a Persian/Indian immigrant and that this is something to be extremely proud of.
(Photo credit: By FreddieMercurySinging21978.jpg: Carl Lenderderivative work: Lošmi – FreddieMercurySinging21978.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7798754)