It was a huge gathering of rural women.
Women from 10 different villages had gathered together.
Many of them were for the first time participating in such a huge event. They did not know about meetings, gatherings, lectures, guest speakers etc. They were all poor, middle aged, never had opportunity to see the larger world. Most of them had never been outside their village, had never seen pendal, had never known microphone.....
They were anxious, they were excited, they were curious, they were smiling.
They were clearly enjoying the event.
There were songs, quiz and competitions like 'Musical Chair' etc. Women had lot of fun. It was a happy environment.
And then as is the usual case, there was formal learning session.
Some well known social personalities were on the stage. They were to guide the gathering.
But even before that some of the rural women were invited to the stage to share their experiences - about Self Help Groups, about their struggle, about their successes, about their challenges and about their hopes.
I like to be at the backstage, that is my strength. That is also because I generally easily get bored with the formalities that have to be carried on the stage with pomp and show. Generally it is so artificially funny, that I cannot sit on the dais with stone faced seriousness. So, I was sitting in the audience. Initially some of the women were little bit frightened to have me with them. But many of those women knew me well and were happy to have me with them instead of me sitting on the distant dais. With exchange of lot of spontaneous smiles and nods from them and from me; we finally were set to listen to the speakers.
The experiences shared by those rural women - most of their were illiterate - were very touching and inspiring.
The dignitaries on the stage and some of the people sitting in the first rows clapped for the first woman speaker.
The women sitting around me exchanged hurried looks, I noticed that none of them actually clapped.
The second woman spoke and the sequence of the events was repeated - dignitaries and people in the first few rows clapping, the large gathering of rural women sitting quietly.
I did not understand what was happening.
Had we (the organizers) chosen wrong women to share the experiences?
But that did not seem to be the case, because their experiences were worth listening to, the stories were told with vigor, honesty and simplicity.
But why these other women were not clapping?
Were they angry? Were they not happy with the speech, the speakers, the content, the prestige some of them were getting?
I was not sure how to interpret the silence of that large crowd. Was it indicating some potential disaster?
No, the women were smiling, they were in agreement with what their representatives were saying. I was getting more and more confused.
When the third woman's eloquence was met with silence, I spoke to the woman sitting next to me.
I asked, "Don't you like what she said? It is not true? Is it not the real story? Is it not the right kind of expression?"
Before the woman answered, another turned to me and asked, "Can you go to the dais and tell those learned and urban people not to clap?"
That was such a strange request that for a moment I was speechless.
"What do you mean?" I asked with a great courage.
"Why are they discouraging our women by clapping?" another woman asked me with visible irritation and anger.
I did not know why they thought that the dignitaries were discouraging their colleagues.
"They are not at all discouraging them. On the contrary they are appreciating your friends," I tried to explain.
"By clapping they are appreciating? That is what you mean?" another woman was amused.
"Are you sure?" third one wanted the assurance.
The whole conversation was happening in a hushed tone but within moments it spread like a fire.
From almost every corner, women turned to me and smiled at me sheepishly, some even encouragingly, some with their faces glowing as if with a new light.
I was completely lost.
"Oh! We thought only when you don't like what somebody has said, you clap", another spoke in my ear.
I did not know why they had such a concept, from where they borrowed it or how they imagined it.
It could be only due to their lack of exposure to public life and social gatherings.
I do not know how the message was spread without speaking, without words .. but when the fifth woman spoke, at the end all the women clapped loudly - so loudly that even the dignitaries on the dais noticed that. Maybe for the first time they realized that the four earlier speakers were not greeted in the same way by the crowd. And the fifth woman looked stunned.
At the end of the function, one of the senior colleagues came to me and said, "That was well done, truly well managed, your backstage contribution is always noteworthy."
"What?" I asked, not knowing for what the appreciation was.
"Oh! For asking the women to clap properly, the silence was so embarrassing you know...." and with a mild pat on my back, he moved on.
But since then whenever I see people clapping I ask myself - is it really appreciation? Or is it a relief that finally the speech has ended? Or is it just a formality? Is it just a norm? A stereotype? Do people clap only when they want to appreciate? Is there any spontaneity? Why do people really clap? When did the clapping start? How did people learn it? What if I don't clap but appreciate in some other way?
I am not sure whether I gave the right information to the women that day.
Somehow from that day. I find claps very artificial, funny and formal.