Illustration by Sydney Zoehrer

The Sandal and the Star

I was seven years old when I went to India for the first time. Now, at eighteen, I don’t remember much from that trip, only snippets: the hot weather, the taste of fresh lychee and rambutan, meeting family members, and—much to my mother’s dismay—forgetting most of their names the following day. Hints of a life I may have lived if my parents hadn’t moved to the States that have since blurred with time. What I do remember is losing my shoe on the side of a mountain. 

I am Hindu by birth. My parents practice the faith. My brother and I do so nominally—making occasional trips to the nearest Hindu temple in Delaware, repeating phrases in Malayalam to praise Gods we barely know.

This isn’t to say I don’t believe in Hinduism. It’s just that I’ve already reached my spiritual peak, when I was seven years old, hiking up a mountain to reach a temple dedicated to the Lord Ayyappa, alongside my brother, dad, and uncle.

Sabarimala is a spiritual destination for Hindus everywhere. Located in my parents’ home state of Kerala, it’s the mountain where Ayyappa, a prince and Hindu deity, meditated until he united with the divine world. The pilgrimage is sacred but rare. And this was my chance. Only girls under the age of ten and women over fifty are permitted to enter the temple since the God who resides there is celibate. 

The night before our hike, my uncle, fondly known as Valiyacha, took me shopping. Driving through roads in India is terrifying. My uncle accelerated and swerved past cars like in a scene out of an action movie; the smell of burnt tires permeated the air. Miraculously, we arrived safely at a bazaar with bodegas selling everything from shoes and t-shirts to snacks and tea. I spotted a tiny kiosk with sandals lining its exterior. There, I picked out the prettiest pair of flip-flops in all of India to wear. Sleek and glossy, the black rubber sandals fit snugly around my feet, as though crafted just for me. It would have been much more sensible to choose sneakers or shoes with any grip whatsoever. But I wanted the sandals, so Valiyacha paid and we headed back.

The next morning, we woke up before dawn. My mother couldn’t believe I’d chosen flimsy flip-flops to wear on my pilgrimage but mustered enough self-control not to yell at me in front of my cousins.

She took me aside. I had to hike the mountain in “the right state of mind”—as an American and a soon-to-be woman, it was unlikely I’d ever climb it again. She told me that a star shone on top of the mountain, which was Lord Ayyappa himself blessing those who made the journey. I didn’t listen. I concentrated on the way my toes felt pressed against the hot black rubber, soft and supportive—I’d never owned such sleek, sophisticated sandals. I got in the car with my Valiyachan, my father, and my brother, the sandals sealed to the soles of my feet.

Upon arriving at Sabarimala, we strolled past barefoot men holding bamboo chairs, waiting to carry people up the mountain for a small fee. Skinny men beckoned kids with colorful, plastic toys like bait—pinwheels, poppers, cotton candy—hoping for a rupee or two.

The journey up Sabarimala begins with eighteen golden steps. If it’s your first time, you must break a coconut on the first step. Prideful, I attempted numerous times to throw and break the coconut. Despite my best efforts, my dad stepped in, guiding my hand, gracefully casting the coconut onto the step.

A crowd of people gathered close to the base, mostly the elderly and sick. One woman, boils marking her skin, lay sprawled across a thin, pink sheet and begged for money. Another woman stood nearby, skin barely hanging off the bone, asking for scraps of food. Most travelers ignored them, except the occasional one tossing a coin onto their blankets, which they received with wails of joy. As we walked by, I looked at my dad, who returned my hopeful gaze with despair, implying wordlessly that there was nothing we could do. The desolate and deprived lay begging, while we, fixated on spiritual guidance, marched on. Out of sight, out of mind. I looked down at my new black sandals and, despite myself, was happy. We walked on. I stared in awe at the barefoot men running up the mountain, carrying people on bamboo chairs on their backs, for a wage less than any traditional vocation. My brother and I laughed at the sight of large black boars alongside the trail, defecating freely, oblivious to their desecration of a holy path. 

It began to drizzle, and the trail steepened. Valiyachan, whose hand I gripped for support, slipped as the rock beneath us lost friction. In shock, I pulled my hand away and began to roll down the mountain. I struggled to cling to the path escaping from underneath me. My father rushed after me, but it was too late. One of my beautiful black sandals was gone. It had fallen behind us, leaving my right foot bare. I begged my Valiyacha to go back in search of it, and when that failed, I pleaded to my father, too. They stood firmly and told me it was a lost cause. 

 I erupted in anger. My dad carried me, patting my back as I cried over my lost flip-flop. Men who passed stared at my father and brother with pity. They were the unlucky bunch tasked with bringing a little girl up the mountain. I pouted and whined on my father’s back until we were halfway up the holy hill. 

Calmer, but still upset, I looked around. Vendors sold refreshments to weary travelers. My Valiyachan’s eyes darted across the stands, and he skillfully chose two bags of masala-flavored Lays chips for my brother and me. Soothed by the snacks, I trod onward until we reached the top, but the feeling of slippery rock beneath my right foot reminded me of what I’d lost.

At the top, I placed my remaining shoe next to my brother’s in a designated space allocated for devotees to remove their footwear before entering the temple.

We walked up to the entrance, and my fixation on the lost sandal subsided. I looked up at the figurehead in front of me: a tall granite cylinder engraved with curving, sacred symbols. Idols of Gods twice my size lined the inside of the temple, adorned with brilliant red and white flowers and jewelry. The priest handed my father coconut halves, and I was instructed to pour fresh ghee into mine, a representation of body and soul. I felt my heart dance as I prayed in unison with the other travelers. As a child, I never felt overly connected to my culture.  My inability to speak Malayalam or understand our religion’s mythology created barriers. Back home, our temple, usually vacant, would host the whole Hindu population of the Northeast on holidays. Down the street from Dunkin Donuts, its Indian architecture created a discernible deviation in the Hockessin, Delaware skyline. But at Sabarimala, I felt more connected to my culture—as much as a seven-year-old American could be. Here was a group of people who believed so much in something, they climbed up a mountain in hopes of maybe, possibly getting blessed by a God who maybe, possibly existed. It may have been foolish, but it was beautiful.

We made our rounds across the temple, praying to the larger-than-life icons for peace and prosperity. After completing the ceremonies, I stood at the top of the hill and looked around. Valiyacha was teaching my brother how to whistle, and my dad rested before the hike back down.

It was early evening, just before sunset. I looked up at the hazy, blue-pink sky and, in that moment, I saw it. I swear, I saw it. Above the mirage of green trees and hilltops, above the defecating boars, above the beggars, above the men holding up their superiors, above my lost shoe, that star shone. The very star my mother had told me about. Lord Ayyappa was coming to bless those who made the journey. Coming to bless me. 

I’d read about moments of clarity in books: a feeling of completeness, being chosen to do something bigger than oneself. My seven-year-old self felt it, too: an air of pride and connection that made me know we had gathered for something real. I rushed over to my brother, begging him to come quick. When we looked back up at the sky, it was gone. He chided me for thinking I was special, as any good older brother does, and went back to whistling. My father reassured me. If I saw the star, it was there.

The trip down was fast. My mother waited for us at the base and listened as we recounted our journey. I recounted the tale with fervor, emphasizing the great loss of my sandal on the rocky terrain. I told my mom I saw the star; I received Lord Ayyappa’s blessing. Much to my surprise, she began to laugh. The star appears in January, she said. It was December. And, if I had listened to her and not worn those flimsy sandals, then I wouldn’t have lost my shoe, she told me. No—if I had listened to her, I wouldn’t have seen the star. I would have been too content thinking about my beautiful shoes.

—Sanya Nair is a first-year in Benjamin Franklin College.

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