A Review of Sarah Lamb’s Singles in India – Stories of Gender, Exclusion, and Possibility: The Solitary and the Extraordinary

Through this book, the author examines the lives of single women in terms of education, work, care, love, sex, motherhood, pleasure, and friendship.

“Why Are You Single?” Sarah Lamb’s journey into the lives of single women in India began with a question, and different answers led to the first academic study of single women in India. Singleness studies are an emerging discipline in India, where, as Lamb insists, singleness is uncommon because living outside of familiar kinship is uncommon. As an anthropologist, Lamb focuses on singleness through kinship.

In her book, Being Single in India: Stories of Gender, Exclusion, and Possibility, Lamb examines single women at all levels of Bangladeshi society, from the affluent elite to the middle class to the poor. Lamb notes that single women offer valid critiques of many things: life, family, gender, sex, kinship, etiquette, respect, social class, belonging, pleasure, and more. Through this book, she examines single women’s lives related to education, work, care, love, sex, motherhood, joy, and friendship. She balances examining the challenges with the possibility of being single.

social status

Lamb also explores issues of social identity and belonging, and how single women can be troubled by existing outside of kinship structures. She explores these issues from the perspective of rural and urban women, who may have all the creature comforts and security but may lack kinship. This situation of not having a mother’s family led to many things. One of them is that there are fewer housing options outside of the family home. While urban women may find housing in high-rise buildings, in rural areas, single women cannot find housing.

With the ubiquity of the show Indian Matchmaking, Lamb’s discussion of what keeps women from getting married is poignant and relevant. These range from appearance, disability, achievement and higher education. She noticed how highly educated women with PhDs remained single. According to Lamb, it is widely believed that being highly educated denies a woman her femininity. A fascinating case she discusses is China’s three conceptions of gender—male, female, and women with PhDs. Citing the Kanyashree initiative launched by West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, Lamb pointed to the role of education in delaying marriage age for girls. Affluence, feminism, communication technology, and urbanization have all been cited as contributing factors to the rise in singles worldwide; we can now add education to that list.

south asian background

Lamb also examines a particular kind of single woman, culturally specific to South Asia. This is for women who are not married because their families need their income and care. While the women who performed this particular act of “sacrifice” felt proud and happy about it, their families simply saw them as the breadwinners.

She also noticed how single women’s sexuality was seen as a threat, leading landlords to deny housing to single women. In examining single motherhood (the unmarried kind), Lamb points out that it undermines the paternal line and must be responsible for the undue pressure on men to marry and inherit the lineage.

Nursing homes become an interesting space for the possibility of legal singles. In these families, unmarried women gain respect and status because they are legal here. Married women, on the other hand, showed pity and confusion because “why didn’t their children take care of them?”

Many women gained some independence and autonomy by remaining single, as work became a means of livelihood and self-fulfillment after marriage. The most promising part of the book comes at the end, breaking down the deficit narrative about singletons. Here, Lamb tells the story of single women exploring the fun and enjoyment of going out alone, decorating their own home, and meeting friends, all while navigating public spaces as a single woman. Lamb explained that this ability to choose to remain single is often associated with international upbringing and education.I ask all cosmopolitan married women, ‘Why do you no single’?

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

The reviewer is an assistant professor at the Manipal Center for the Humanities, who teaches a single studies course.


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