Calling Mr. Mercury…

Nadia Akbar

Cause I’m just a girl
Guess I’m some kind of freak
‘Cause they all sit and stare
With their eyes.

2004, RJ Nadia’s debut, my first radio show at high noon. Gwen Stefani’s No Doubt high-octane velvet blanketing the sweltering streets of an August Lahori lunch hour. CityFM89, Pakistan’s premier English music station was in its infancy, and Gwen Stefani had never sounded so sweet rumbling out of the car stereos of 8 million bewildered, happy, and electrified Desi’s.

Rock ‘n’ roll radio was new to Lahore, our grandfathers old transistors historically tuned to receive ghazals and Lollywood-Bollywood, Urdu news so florid it was like deciphering a Cold War code. But we were connected to the music world with underground portable technology—mixed tapes and pirated CD’s, visits from cousins far away in the US or UK bringing us much needed Wu-Tang and Fugazi bootlegs. And then, sometime after I left Cornell University, in the early 2000’s, CityFM89 descended into Pakistan like a grandiloquent UFO, and we all bowed, twirled, and twisted, tuning our car stereos to unforgettable voices like RJ Jellyman, RJ Saami , Moog, Mercury, Fez, Flash, Bass, Sanaa, and so many more.

Those were the halcyon days of FM89. We were young and semi-famous. We could choose our own songs, control the high-hat pace, the machine-gun content, while palaverous ads for mattresses and sim cards played out. We shot the shit with other RJ’s from far and wide across Lahore’s social and economic scene, polluted our lungs with cheap tobacco, purifying our minds with rock n’ roll, Tiesto beats, and Off-Air studio gaali’s. And then, as it is with all enlightened things—the corporate office rode down on her broomstick, monkeys in tow, and killed the buzz. A long checklist of rules. No more Kings, no more Queens, and no more Mr. Nice Guy.

Enter: RJ Bugsy, one of the main characters in my novel Goodbye Freddie Mercury. Like all Pakistani RJ’s, his rock ‘n’ roll identity is tied to his fame as the host of his nationwide radio show The Rocket Launch. Despite his disenchantment with politics, life, and the stale party scene in Lahore, rock radio is his escape. As he befriends Nida, another major character, and introduces her to his world of rock music he is opening her cultural door ever wider, pushing her ever further toward identity crisis and dust.

Bugsy was the first character I created when I conceived of the idea for Goodbye Freddie Mercury–part rock ‘n’ roll romance, part political thriller–more than five years ago. It had been a few years since I left CityFM89, but I still felt a deep connection with the RJ’s I had befriended and the role I played as a fellow cultural revolutionary. It wasn’t just the opportunity to influence listeners and be a pseudo-celebrity that was profound, but the transformative power of music and culture to form unique identity. But I was also battling disappointment and bitterness with the station. Joni Mitchell said it best–they paved paradise and put up a parking lot. We saw a place of beauty and vitality, of friendship and creativity, turn into a dingy room with slit leather sofas, chipped ashtrays, and stained white walls. The band had dissolved.

RJ Bugsy was my way of reliving the experience, even if for a chapter or two, a way of showing the transience of identity, the difficulty of transcendence in a conformist world. Bugsy is witness to the slow pour of cement on his radio station romance, and I wanted, in part, to imprint that particular moment of Lahore’s cultural history into a narrative. Of course, Goodbye Freddie Mercury isn’t just about the slow dissolve of the radio rabble, but I think part of Bugsy’s greater political disillusionment comes from the destruction of his alternative temple.

Since CityFM89, I’ve attempted to work at other radio stations around the world, but find them cold joyless places without much camaraderie. Nothing is even close to those raving days, where desi youngsters and music lovers realized they were more than just students, more than someone’s child or brother or employee, more than kids perpetually entombed in the conservatism of Lahore. Sometimes there is a flash of brilliance, and if you’re lucky you get to be a part of it, and if you are even luckier, like me, you get to recreate it in a novel.


Nadia Akbar is a Pakistani-American novelist represented by Kanishka Gupta, of the Writer’s Side Agency. She has just completed her first novel Goodbye Freddie Mercury – a profane and daring look at politics, youth, and sexuality in contemporary Lahori society. She was born and raised in Lahore, Pakistan. She holds degrees from Cornell University and the graduate creative writing program at the University of Arizona. To read more about her, visit https://www.nadiaakbar.com/

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