Review of Sarah Lamb’s Being Single in India — Stories of Gender, Exclusion and Possibility: Alone and extraordinary

For women who choose not to marry in India, it’s a life of possibilities but also immense challenges

Updated - November 27, 2022 10:26 pm IST

Published - November 25, 2022 09:01 am IST

Through the book, the author examines single women’s lives in relation to education, work, care, love, sex, motherhood, pleasure, and friendships.

Through the book, the author examines single women’s lives in relation to education, work, care, love, sex, motherhood, pleasure, and friendships.

‘Why are you single?’ Sarah Lamb’s journey into the lives of single women in India begins with a question and the varied answers result in the first book-length academic study of singlehood in India. Singles Studies is an emerging discipline in India, and as Lamb maintains, being single is unusual in the country because living outside the familiar habitus of kinship is not common. As an anthropologist, Lamb’s key focus on singlehood is through the lens of kinship.

In her book, Being Single in India: Stories of Gender, Exclusion and Possibility, Lamb examines single women across social classes in Bengal, ranging from the affluent elite to the middle classes, to the impoverished ones. Single women, Lamb notes, offer a valid critique to many things: life, family, gender, sexuality, kinship, propriety, respect, social class, belonging, pleasure etc. Through the book she examines single women’s lives in relation to education, work, care, love, sex, motherhood, pleasure, and friendships. She strikes a balance between examining the challenges as well as the possibilities of being single.

Social identity

Lamb also examines the question of social identity and belonging and how single women are in a limbo because of their existence outside kinship structures. She explores these both in regard to rural as well as urban women, who might have all the material comforts and security but might lack in kinship relationships. This lack of natal family leads to a number of things. One among them is fewer housing options beyond the family home. While urban women might find houses in high rises, in rural areas there is no housing for single women.

With the ubiquity of shows like Indian Matchmaking, Lamb’s discussion of what makes a woman unmarriageable is poignant and relevant. These range from physical appearance, disability, being accomplished, and higher education. She notes how women who are highly educated, with a PhD, remain single. Lamb says there is a common perception that being highly educated denies a woman her femininity. A fascinating case she discusses is the notion of three genders in China — men, women, and women with PhDs. Citing the Kanyashree programme started by West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, Lamb notes the role of education in delaying the age of marriage for girls. Affluence, feminism, communication technology and urbanisation have been noted as factors that led to the global rise of singlehood; we can now add education to that list.

The South Asian context

Lamb also examines a particular kind of single woman, culturally specific to South Asia. This is of women who didn’t marry because their families needed their income and care. While the women who perform this specific act of ‘sacrifice’ take pride and pleasure in it, their families just see them as breadwinners.

She also notes how a single woman’s sexuality is seen as a threat, leading landlords to deny single women housing. In examining single motherhood (the unwed kind), Lamb notes that it disrupts patrilineality, and must be the reason for excessive pressure on men to marry and carry forward the lineage.

Old age homes become interesting spaces for the possibility of legitimate singlehood. At these homes unmarried women gain respect and status because they are legitimately here. Married women, on the other hand, are seen with pity and bewilderment because, ‘why haven’t their children looked after them?’

Many women claim a certain independence and autonomy by remaining single where work becomes a means of livelihood and fulfilment beyond marriage. The most hopeful parts of the book come at the end, breaking the deficit narratives about single people. Here, Lamb narrates stories of single women’s exploration of fun and enjoyment, which include going out alone, decorating their homes, meeting friends, all the while navigating the public space as a single woman alone. Lamb explains that this ability to choose to remain single is often linked to a cosmopolitan upbringing and education. To all cosmopolitan married women I ask, ‘why are you not single’?

Being Single in India: Stories of Gender, Exclusion and Possibility; Sarah Lamb, University of California Press, ₹2,351.

The reviewer is Assistant Professor at Manipal Centre for Humanities and teaches a course on Singles Studies.

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