Baking Joy in Shillong

The shoot that was scheduled for 6 am only began at 2 pm on a late October afternoon. We hadn’t accounted for Shillong’s load-shedding calendar, and that set back the schedule by several hours. So as it turned out, instead of capturing the early hours of the day, we filmed against the golden light of the setting sun in the wintry hills of Meghalaya.

The bakery that is attached to Daphi’s family home is the centre of activity at all times, but especially so in winter. On cold, foggy days, the heat of the bakery and the captivating aroma of baking bread ensures that there’s always a crowd cosying up around the warm glow of the oven, prying open jars of butter shorts or slathering generous amounts of butter on freshly baked bread.

Daphimanroi Warjri wasn’t always a baker. She graduated with a degree in psychology, but found herself gravitating towards the culinary arts, and soon after, enrolled in baking school. Armed with new skills, she worked with some of the best bakeries and restaurants in Bangalore before deciding that she wanted to build something of her own. Wanted to do it her way.

Shillong’s baking culture is as old as its matriarchal tradition, and Daphimanroi fit right in. She set up her bakery in the oldest part of the house, which is over a hundred years old; the section that once housed a fair price shop run by her grandmother.

The first thing that strikes you about Daphi is a solemnity that belies her age. There’s a quiet grace in the way that she carries herself, an unruffled composure that contradicts the stereotype of a bubbly, cheerful baker. She bakes with the assurance of someone who has a natural understanding of dough, having a conversation with it, willing it to puff up into a thing of joy and sustenance.

Hailing from a family of women entrepreneurs, Daphi had role models to show the way – her mother, Bethesda, founded the Ivy Green School in Shillong and has been running it for the last 29 years. Her late grandmother, Bilian, was one of first female entrepreneurs of her generation. When the norm was employment at a safe government job, Bilian broke tradition and set up a fair price shop that provided essential groceries at ration rates.

Sumarlin and Daphi share a light moment

Sumarlin and Daphi share a light moment

Daphi has been treading the unbeaten path for some time now – the first baker in her family, she gave up a promising career as a pastry chef at one of Bangalore’s finest restaurants, and moved back to Shillong to set up something of her own. "Taking instruction didn't really work for me,” Daphi says, straight-faced. “So I decided to come back to Shillong and do things my way.” She uses seasonal ingredients like the Sohiong berry, local to Shillong, in her baking, and crafts wedding cakes that rival the best from bakeries in five-star hotels with access to the finest ingredients and appliances. At a time when working at a corporation in a big city can be easier, and oftentimes more lucrative, setting up shop in a smaller town can seem like the unwise decision. But small, homegrown businesses support the local economy, are more sustainable, and contribute to a more diverse system that affords the preservation of local traditions, vanishing culinary techniques and ingredients, and a way of life that would otherwise be long gone.

In our quest for small businesses that are passionately creating a new path where there is none, we’re so excited to be able to share the story of Daphi’s Bakery, baking breads and spreading joy in the lush hills of Meghalaya.