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Through her grief, an Indian American photographer rediscovers her heritage

Maansi's father, Bhuwan Srivastava, lifts her mother, Shubhika Srivastava, out of the grass at the park near their home in Wilmington, Del.
Maansi Srivastava
Maansi's father, Bhuwan Srivastava, lifts her mother, Shubhika Srivastava, out of the grass at the park near their home in Wilmington, Del.

Editor's note: May marks Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, which celebrates the histories of Americans hailing from across the Asian continent and from the Pacific islands of Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia. NPR's Picture Show will be bringing stories from these communities to our audience this month.

I developed this photo essay, Roots Hanging from the Banyan Tree, over the past three years. Photography became my therapy as I grappled with loss, grief and racial reckoning over the course of the pandemic. Searching for my identity as an Indian American woman became intertwined with the struggle to ground myself after losing my grandmother to COVID-19.

Water buffalo graze on the lakeshore of a tiger reserve in southern India in April 2017.
/ Maansi Srivastava
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Maansi Srivastava
Water buffalo graze on the lakeshore of a tiger reserve in southern India in April 2017.
Maansi's father reaches for coconuts hanging over a riverbank in Kerala, India, in April 2017.
/ Maansi Srivastava
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Maansi Srivastava
Maansi's father reaches for coconuts hanging over a riverbank in Kerala, India, in April 2017.

After her passing, my understanding of life and death shifted. In conversations with my mother, I learned that we both felt a sudden severance of our roots. In my grief, I grasped for memories of a simpler time. I connected with the Patil family, hoping to find a semblance of my childhood in their homes. Through documenting their daily lives, recollections of cultural rituals from my childhood began to flood back in. I also found that I was not alone in my experiences and fears of losing my connection with my heritage.

These images represent my experiences growing up between two cultures while navigating girlhood and early adulthood. I saw myself in the Patil family's young children. While looking back through my old family albums, I found that our shared rituals and experiences were nearly identical. I suddenly felt less isolated in my experience as an Indian American and as a third-culture woman.

Kayla Patil, 7, watches her 3-year-old brother Eshaan's haircutting ceremony at their home in Vienna, Va. In a traditional Hindu <em>mundan</em> ceremony, a priest cuts a child's first hairs off to symbolize letting go of their past life. When Maansi was little, the strands of her hair cut during her <em>mundan</em> ceremony were spread near her mother's childhood home in Delhi, along the Ganges.
/ Maansi Srivastava
/
Maansi Srivastava
Kayla Patil, 7, watches her 3-year-old brother Eshaan's haircutting ceremony at their home in Vienna, Va. In a traditional Hindu mundan ceremony, a priest cuts a child's first hairs off to symbolize letting go of their past life. When Maansi was little, the strands of her hair cut during her mundan ceremony were spread near her mother's childhood home in Delhi, along the Ganges.
Top: Maansi's mother holds her up so she could place tika (vermillion sandalwood powder) on Arjun Verma, her cousin's head, as part of a <em>Raksha Bandhan</em> ceremony when she was 2 years old. The ceremony involves a sister placing amulets of protection on their brothers, who in turn protect all. Above: Three generations of the Patil family gather for a meal after Eshaan's haircutting ceremony.
/ Maansi Srivastava
/
Maansi Srivastava
Top: Maansi's mother holds her up so she could place tika (vermillion sandalwood powder) on Arjun Verma, her cousin's head, as part of a Raksha Bandhan ceremony when she was 2 years old. The ceremony involves a sister placing amulets of protection on their brothers, who in turn protect all. Above: Three generations of the Patil family gather for a meal after Eshaan's haircutting ceremony.
Children from the Bollywood-style dance group Rhythmaaya get ready to participate in an annual Halloween parade in Vienna, Va., on Oct. 27, 2021. The dancers' mothers help their children get ready in a nearby parking lot.
/ Maansi Srivastava
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Maansi Srivastava
Children from the Bollywood-style dance group Rhythmaaya get ready to participate in an annual Halloween parade in Vienna, Va., on Oct. 27, 2021. The dancers' mothers help their children get ready in a nearby parking lot.
Kayla Patil and her friend, Elora, both 7, practice their Bollywood dance routine in a park in Virginia before a performance for a community Diwali festival.
/ Maansi Srivastava
/
Maansi Srivastava
Kayla Patil and her friend, Elora, both 7, practice their Bollywood dance routine in a park in Virginia before a performance for a community Diwali festival.

In their home, I was able to revisit memories as a young adult and recognize the beautiful aspects of the Indian American experience. What began as my thesis work grew into a labor of love that has shown me that my roots and cultural connection have been with me all along. As children of a diaspora, our cultural roots continue to grow and spread, but the soil is ours — we flourish where we are planted.

Top: Maansi, 3, examines her cousin Nikki Srivastava's birthday cake on her ninth birthday in the summer of 2003. Above:<strong> </strong>Kayla Patil, 7, examines her birthday cake at her Halloween-themed birthday party at her home in Vienna, Va.
/ Maansi Srivastava
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Maansi Srivastava
Top: Maansi, 3, examines her cousin Nikki Srivastava's birthday cake on her ninth birthday in the summer of 2003. Above: Kayla Patil, 7, examines her birthday cake at her Halloween-themed birthday party at her home in Vienna, Va.
Yellow flowers bloom in spring 2020, in Wilmington, Del. The flowers are reminiscent of the marigolds used in a traditional Hindu prayer ceremony.
/ Maansi Srivastava
/
Maansi Srivastava
Yellow flowers bloom in spring 2020, in Wilmington, Del. The flowers are reminiscent of the marigolds used in a traditional Hindu prayer ceremony.
Top: Maansi sits in the grass, looking at some of her favorite flowers in her grandmother's garden in Delhi, India, in 2005. Before her Nani passed away, they would spend hours playing in her garden with local children and Maansi's cousins. Above: Maansi's sister, Komal Srivastava, her father and her mother walk toward her at a park in Wilmington, Del., in spring 2020.
/ Maansi Srivastava
/
Maansi Srivastava
Top: Maansi sits in the grass, looking at some of her favorite flowers in her grandmother's garden in Delhi, India, in 2005. Before her Nani passed away, they would spend hours playing in her garden with local children and Maansi's cousins. Above: Maansi's sister, Komal Srivastava, her father and her mother walk toward her at a park in Wilmington, Del., in spring 2020.
<strong></strong>Maansi's Nana, Shailendra Hajela, or maternal grandfather, in Hindi, completes funeral rites for her Nani, Aruna Hajela, in New Jersey on June 14, 2021. Her Nani was diagnosed with COVID-19 while living in Delhi, India, amid the Delta variant's surge in May 2021. She was airlifted to Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City for emergency treatment, where she passed away.
/ Maansi Srivastava
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Maansi Srivastava
Maansi's Nana, Shailendra Hajela, or maternal grandfather, in Hindi, completes funeral rites for her Nani, Aruna Hajela, in New Jersey on June 14, 2021. Her Nani was diagnosed with COVID-19 while living in Delhi, India, amid the Delta variant's surge in May 2021. She was airlifted to Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City for emergency treatment, where she passed away.
Vines weave through a broken fence in April 2020, in Wilmington, Del. Maansi and her father pass by them while on one of their daily walks during the pandemic.
/ Maansi Srivastava
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Maansi Srivastava
Vines weave through a broken fence in April 2020, in Wilmington, Del. Maansi and her father pass by them while on one of their daily walks during the pandemic.
In his mourning, Maansi's father and uncle shave her grandfather's head and trim his facial hair in June 2021, in Harrington Park, N.J. In Hindu tradition, this hair cutting is seen as a symbol of grief and a mark of respect for the departed soul.
/ Maansi Srivastava
/
Maansi Srivastava
In his mourning, Maansi's father and uncle shave her grandfather's head and trim his facial hair in June 2021, in Harrington Park, N.J. In Hindu tradition, this hair cutting is seen as a symbol of grief and a mark of respect for the departed soul.
Top: In this old family photograph, circa 2001, Maansi's mother holds her tight while on a family vacation. She held her the same way at her Nani's funeral, only Maansi's head rests on top of hers now. Above:<strong> </strong>Tina Patil holds her daughter, Kayla, while reading her a bedtime story.
/ Maansi Srivastava
/
Maansi Srivastava
Top: In this old family photograph, circa 2001, Maansi's mother holds her tight while on a family vacation. She held her the same way at her Nani's funeral, only Maansi's head rests on top of hers now. Above: Tina Patil holds her daughter, Kayla, while reading her a bedtime story.
Maansi sits on a riverbank along Brandywine River in Delaware in winter 2020, wearing a traditional Indian salwar kurta.
/ Maansi Srivastava
/
Maansi Srivastava
Maansi sits on a riverbank along Brandywine River in Delaware in winter 2020, wearing a traditional Indian salwar kurta.

Maansi Srivastava (she/they) is an Indian American documentary photographer and photo editor focusing on widespread social issues through a lens of family and community. She previously worked at the Washington Post and NPR. This June, she'll begin a yearlong photography fellowship at the New York Times. See more of Maansi's work on her website, maansi.photos, or on Instagram, @maansi.photo.

Zach Thompson copy edited this piece.

Grace Widyatmadja oversaw production of this piece.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Maansi Srivastava