The other day, I was at the golden jubilee function of a highly successful business house in the city. Surprise of surprises, there was no speechification at all. After a well-hosted tea, guests were ushered into the auditorium and treated to an absorbing evening of storytelling by a rising harikatha exponent.

The episode she expiated on was from the Ramayana – the journey undertaken by Hanuman across the Palk Straits to Lanka to find and reassure Sita of the imminent arrival of Rama to spirit her back home, no worries as our friends in the Australian serials say.

The telling was vigorous and filled with musical interludes. Some people found these irksome, they complained it was more like a kacheri. However I enjoyed it, as well as her style of storytelling: she held your attention, made you listen. No wonder she is popular. Still, there were a couple of things. For instance, while she described how Hanuman landed at the gates of Lanka being guarded by a Lankini, she went into a detailed description of how the Lankini looked, mainly to suggest that she was a formidable creature. Besides, the storyteller added, she was “black” (in Tamil the blackness of the black was conveyed in no uncertain terms). The audience tittered. They seemed to understand exactly what she meant. “Catch my point?” she asked without asking. Yes, they replied, without speaking.

Several other details later, she came to the women guarding Sita in the ashokavana. At that point she went on to ascribe to those women all manner of physical attributes that she said determined they were “monsters” – exaggerated physical features, extra items of physical anatomy, misshapen bones, many-bhanga-ed bodies, eyes in odd places, wild hair, B and other odour, and so on. I’m not making this up, she clarified, it’s all there in the Ramayana. Which made me think: So, what she’s saying is you’re a monster if you look like a monster. And how do you look like a monster? If you’re born that way, I assume. I mean, nobody would deliberately do cosmetic surgery to plant a second nose in the middle of the forehead, or even an eye, would they? Or attach a tail to the posterior, even if we love Hanuman to death?

What I’m saying is, we are just born the way we are and we grow up to look like we do and along the way, hopefully, we learn to love ourselves, warts and all. My question then is: Just because I have, for instance, black spots all over my face, does that make me a monster? My grandmother had smallpox as a child; she survived that, but her face was like the moon, round and full of craters. Does that make her a monster? My friend has a crooked spine that’s getting weaker as she ages and makes her all bended over. Does that make her a monster? My cousin lost a leg when he got caught in ethnic violence in Rwanda. Does that make him a monster? Hrithik Roshan has an extra finger. Does that make him a monster? I think you understand what I’m saying. Does it make any logical sense to say that someone is a monster because s/he looks like one? What’s this about looking like a monster anyway? If beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder, the heart has a lot to answer for. A lot of monstrous thoughts, for a start.