Travel is the Single Most Important Determinant in Life: Brinda Somaya

Monuments, contemporary buildings and food dominate the Mumbai-based architect’s itinerary.  
The architect likes to familiarise herself with a place before taking off—whether it’s watching the Netflix show, Marseille, before visiting the southern French town, or delving into the works of Nobel Prize winner Nadine Gordimer before a trip to South Africa. Photo by Anushree Fadnavis.
The architect likes to familiarise herself with a place before taking off—whether it’s watching the Netflix show, Marseille, before visiting the southern French town, or delving into the works of Nobel Prize winner Nadine Gordimer before a trip to South Africa. Photo by Anushree Fadnavis.

Brinda Somaya glides into the room in a typically elegant sari, fresh from a work trip to Marseille, France, her well-coiffed salt and pepper bob in place.

It was a good trip, she says, settling in to the interview. It was a trip that also gave her some time to admire the architecture in the southern French town that hosts both classic Le Corbusier and contemporary Zaha Hadid.

Somaya, 68, has built an enviable practice as an architect, conjuring pretty buildings into existence and helping return other, older ones back to pretty versions of themselves. She has been feted for her heritage and design interventions both at home and abroad. In her professional life she has been tireless, passionate and driven.

As a traveller those same adjectives might apply.

“Travel is my life,” she says, at a meeting in her office in Mumbai’s Ballard Estate. “I travel and travel and travel! All types of travel, right from when I was a very young child and my parents took me on car trips all over the country.”

One such childhood trip to Bihar led to a eureka moment of a kind. “My father took us to Nalanda, and I just fell in love with archaeology,” she says, of visiting the ancient town. “I wanted to be an archaeologist. I was six then. But by the time I was 13 I knew I wanted to be an architect.”

Nalanda Bihar

Somaya fell in love with archaeology during a childhood trip to Nalanda. At  13, however, she found herself gravitating more towards architecture. Photo: iStock.com/PeoGeo

Somaya is the founder and principal architect at Somaya and Kalappa Consultants, an award-winning firm that has worked on everything from restoring colonial buildings to rehabilitating an earthquake-hit village to designing schools, office campuses and hotels.

“If one is lucky enough to travel, one must,” she says in her considered, soft style. “There are many ways you can travel. Now I look for comfort when I travel but when I was young I didn’t. When you are young you can rough it out, you don’t have to go to a five star hotel. It’s the biggest learning experience one can have.”

And she has roughed it out plenty. By the age of 16, Somaya had gone on her first solo trip abroad—a visit to the U.S.A. after being selected on a scholarship. That country unfolded its many splendours to her first as a teenager and later in the 1970s when she returned to complete her Masters at Smith College in Massachusetts. She took in the national parks, deserts and canyons, driving and hitchhiking as she traversed the new world. Europe beckoned thereafter, the old continent revealing itself bit by bit in an age of bus and train journeys, travellers’ cheques and budget considerations. Most of it was alone, some of it involved even sleeping in stations. “One can’t do it today,” she says. “I’d be petrified if my daughter said she was doing it. But I did it.”

Though decades have passed since those early forays outside India, none of that seems to have dimmed her energy when it comes to travel—or talking about travel. So can she count the ways in which it has changed her?

Guwahati. Photo Courtesy: Brinda Somaya

From Guwahati to Greece, Somaya has travelled extensively. The only one destination left, she says, is Antarctica. Photo Courtesy: Brinda Somaya

“No doubt travel has changed me. Everything is not tangible,” she says. “It’s like asking you why do you write like this? There are so many things that make you who you are. And certainly travel is one of the important things that has made me the person I am.”

As an architect Somaya’s interest and travel choices are naturally refracted through the lens of her professional interests. She is partial to visiting monuments and the latest contemporary buildings. “My husband grumbles about some of the choices that we make!” she says, laughing. “He always says that Brinda goes to a site and sees a group of stones and imagines a big Greek temple and I go look at the stones and I see the stones, and I say ‘what is here?’. So as an architect one knows about ruins, old buildings, so certainly one sees things differently I think.”

But a compromise can be made, a deal struck. Often the group decides that one third of the day will be dedicated to museums and archaeological sites, a third of the day for eating (“because we all love food”) and the remainder for members to do as they please. The pleasure of travelling with others is the pleasure of allowing a place to unveil parts of itself to you that you didn’t expect. “If you travel with others what it does is open other parts of the city or country to you that you might not see if you are focused on what you think is important you are visiting,” she says. “So travel is about different experiences.”

Now she and her husband, a cardiac surgeon, often travel with a group of friends—they normally pick a different place to visit every year and given their voracious travels might be fast running out of options. And that’s just the leisure trips.

On work Somaya whirls around the country and the globe for meetings, collaborations, lectures, any manner of professional assignments. Such visits have their own gratifying dimensions. “Even with work travel one gets a sense of a place. Maybe not in the same way but a lot of that travel is connected with the universities. So you meet people,” she says. “When you go on a holiday you meet different types of people, connected with hotels, restaurants, guides, friends, but when you go on work you meet academics, thinkers, intellectuals of that university or architects and planners. So that’s a different experience.”

Old Port, Marseille

In the French town of Marseille, Somaya spent time admiring the architectural works of Le Corbusier and Zaha Hadid. Photo by Laborant/Shutterstock.

Somaya exudes a kind old-school precision—evidently that’s inflected her organised approach to holidays. She has a fair sense of where she wants to go and what she would like to do. She might read books beforehand—not travel guides necessarily, but the fiction set in a place. For instance, before travelling to South Africa years ago, she found herself delving into the works of Nobel Prize winner Nadine Gordimer. This time before visiting Marseille she happened to have seen the Netflix show Marseille, which was set in the city.

A church pictured in the series particularly impressed itself upon her and she was determined to visit.

“We reached the top but I couldn’t climb right up which I would have done 10 years ago,” she says. “So physically things become more difficult.”

The body might be slowing, but the spirit is no less willing, and she vehemently shakes her head when asked, does she ever feel like enough is enough. “No, no, not at all,” she says, smiling at the seeming strangeness of the question.

Somaya counts off the places she has been and it sounds like a recitation of the atlas: China, Uzbekistan, the Arctic Circle, Greece, Germany, Russia, Peru, Ladakh, Syria, Iran. The Middle East has been a particularly favourite region, given its civilizational wealth, its religious diversity, food and culture. Ask her what’s next and she mulls briefly, saying Antarctica might be a possibility. Maybe that’s the only thing left.

“I can’t even imagine that anybody would not want to travel,” she says. “Because for me it’s the single most important determinant in life. It makes you see things differently, it makes you think differently, it makes you work differently. It moulds your personality, it makes you empathetic to many different things around you. You understand the world isn’t just about you or your country but goes way beyond that.”

  • Bhavya Dore is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist. She was previously a beat reporter with the Hindustan Times. She usually writes on criminal justice issues, culture, books and sports.

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