“It is better to travel well than to arrive.” – Buddha
Like black, her favourite colour, Abigail Pamei Nongrum is a proud believer in infinite possibilities. The colour, she says, is versatile; it reflects in her career as well. Her Khasi and Naga roots – her parents are doctors – have shaped her fashion aesthetics. And her life has been a roller coaster ride of being in transit, wings on her feet.
She grew up away from Shillong for 18 years, studying in Hebron International School, a British boarding school in Ooty from the age of 12. She went on to complete her engineering in Sydney, Australia and worked as an engineer, before coming back home. Soon, she found herself in Bangkok, working with UN Women through sports, followed by a short stint as an international sport development consultant in Toronto.
Back in her hometown, Abigail now runs the Kaizun Bed and Breakfast, owns her bridal boutique, Kaizun Couture and has started the unique healthy salad bowl concept in the form of Tzai Buddha Bowls. Sunday Shillong had an engaging conversation on her life, worldview and what makes her tick.
At Home with People
Her love for travel stands out. She said how her early experiences allowed growing up in a very multicultural world. Each time Abigail came back to Shillong, she felt like a tourist with people asking her when she would go back. She said how she does not feel at home in places; rather home is with people.
Coming back home always felt temporary – one that allowed a sense of detachment. On her cultural heritage, she takes her identity in her stride. Being a nomad has allowed her to delve deeper into her roots, adding how she regards herself as a Pamei and a Nongrum, rather than having just one identity. She stresses on the importance of being a ‘global’ citizen, in-between worlds.
Finding her Voice
Being one of the top students definitely helped, giving her a sense of freedom to not conform. It was expected that she would become a doctor, but she always wanted to pursue fashion. She reminisced how the field was not regarded to be a ‘safe’ path; the perception that art has no guarantee of a secure life. She says, “The general idea of fashion is limited to stitching clothes, but it is much more than that.” She chose engineering and even though her love for science remained, she wanted to do something else.
“When I was working, I realised I could not sit in front of the computer all day. Needed people around me as I had a creative desire,” Abigail says, insisting her generation is all about following passion rather than being secure. A knee surgery gave her the time to think about what she really wanted to do. A vacation led to meeting her friend whose company was hiring and she worked for UN Women. Once again, she shifted gears to a completely different field, this time in Bangkok. Starting out, she worked as a Social Responsibility Director and worked under the president in Olympic sports. Later, she branched out and campaigned for UN Women, using sports as a tool for empowerment and writing songs. Music is her other passion. The experience in Toronto was for six months.
At this point, her parents wanted her back and she realised that this gave her the opportunity to work for her family and build her own legacy, rather than work for someone else. Abigail spoke of her love for change and gaining new experiences. Her friends would ask her how she would fit in and she told them that she had no desire to – that she would be herself.
She set up different things, adding how the word ‘multi-potential’ describes her career. She could never think of doing just one thing. She embraced the idea of doing many things, a process that took some time to accept. “Being herself” was the hardest thing to do initially as society, family, gender brought in perspectives.
Everybody told her to have a career but she countered by consciously choosing to have more. That’s breaking the conventional mould. Following one direction does not mean being directionless, but being open to new experiences, she says. People, she feels, need to be given space to plunge into the ocean so that they can learn to swim. It requires a different kind of courage and a strong internal compass, because it means getting back up when something does not go as planned.
The Curious Case of Expansion
It was initially frustrating as she asked herself constantly, “What do I want to do?” She battled a boring life; she did not like any limiting factor and sought infinite possibilities. With a twinkle in her eye, she says, “I want to have stories to tell”. Always on the lookout for new adventures, she started Kaizun Couture in June 2018 during her brother’s wedding – her sister-in-law had to travel between New Delhi and Shillong – to get her wedding dress done. Her mother said, “Why don’t we do a bridal thing?” She saw this as a new adventure of a fun mother-daughter duo. Even during the pandemic, they were busy. The spirit of the corona bride was unbreakable, even with the pandemic protocols.
As a team, her mother is old school, while Abigail is more modern. There is a good balance and they keep feedback constructive as the aim is to work more harmoniously. When they started their bridal boutique, they got a sample to see how people would take it; a learning through trial and error. Unwittingly, Abigail entered the world of fashion. Engineering gave her the skills to plan and problem solve each time challenges came her way.
As a minimalist, she is very inspired by clean Scandinavian and Japanese structures. She followed high fashion right from a young age. “You develop an eye as you see and know what you want,” she says. That she has lived in Ooty, Australia, Bangkok, Toronto and now back in North East India – has shaped her understanding of fashion too.
Travel is important for Abigail. “Travelling changes you. It has made me who I am,” she says. Her message to those who consider themselves to be citizens of the world is: “Take time out to experience other cultures and absorb as much as you can.” In the past, she was anxious about new people but as soon as she allowed them to come in, different perspectives began to shape her worldview. To be interested in people, talking and listening to them, is the way to be.
In a society which expects conformism, Abigail feels the importance of detachment where necessary, even if it means getting a few cuts and bruises along the way. Abigail says how she was the only girl in engineering and had a little more to prove. Being an Indian woman, people expected her to be in a certain way. Even in her profession and in the world of sport, people were surprised to see a young woman because, first, they expected a man, and second, someone older. Mansplaining remains a challenge, she says.
Abigail is certain about where life will take her – living out of a suitcase on the highway of adventure.