In 1964, an Indian man leaves his native country to sail to London. He studies at the London School of Economics, sharing an apartment with a group of other expatriate Bengalis. Five years later, at age 36, the man gets a job offer from a library at MIT. Around the same time, his marriage was arranged so he flies first to his wedding in Calcutta and then onwards to Boston. He reads a guidebook warning that America is less friendly than Britain. On the plane he learns that two men have landed on the moon. He studies the differences and expectations and finds a cheap room at the YMCA in Central Square for his first weeks in the country.
The fist meal he has in America is a bowl of cornflakes. He is on a budget, resolving to spend little money until his wife arrives, but the noise of Massachusetts Avenue outside his window is too much to bear. He spends each day drinking tea out of a newly purchased thermos, reading the Boston Globe cover to cover and then sleeping fitfully in his room. He comes across an ad for a room for rent and calls. He is told the room is only rented to boys from Harvard or Tech (MIT). He makes an appointment for the following day.
He finds the house with the room for rent on a pretty, tree-lined street. It would be the first detached house he lived in, and the first home without Indians. The woman who owns the house is the quite old Mrs. Croft. She is dressed as if she lived in the turn of the century. They talk of the moon landing and Mrs. Croft demands that the man call it “splendid.” The man is baffled, but clearly she is impressed that he is punctual, that he declares the event “splendid,” and that he does indeed work for MIT. He moves in. warned against “no lady visitors.”
He thinks about his wife Mala in Calcutta awaiting her green card. After their wedding, she wept every night thinking of her family only five miles away. He reflects on the death of his mother, which happened in the same bed, years before. She had gone crazy after the death of her husband and it fell to the narrator to take care of her and light her funeral pyre.
When the narrator moves in, he finds Mrs. Croft sitting on the piano bench. She slaps the seat next to her, imploring him to sit down. This becomes a routine, the pair sitting together for 10 minutes a day and declaring the moon walk splendid. He does not have the heart to tell her that there is no longer a flag on the moon – that the astronauts took it with them when they flew back to earth. When rent is due, instead of putting it on the ledge above the piano as requested, he hands the envelope stuffed with dollar bills to Mrs. Croft. She is confused and doesn’t take it at first. That night, when he returns from work, she is still holding the envelope. They do not talk about the moon walk. She tells him that what he had done was very kind.
Mrs. Croft’s daughter Helen, dressed in modern clothes, comes to visit and to bring her mother food. Helen tours the narrator’s room and they chat. She says he is the first boarder her mother has called a gentleman. Mrs. Croft yells for them to come downstairs and they fear the worst. But Mrs. Croft chides them for the indecency of a man and woman sharing a room without a chaperone. The narrator helps Helen carry the groceries to the kitchen. The narrator is shocked to learn that Mrs. Croft is 103 years old. The piano, Helen explains, was the source of income when Mrs. Croft was widowed. The narrator thinks of his own mother, destroyed by her widowhood.
Six weeks are spent with the narrator worrying about Mrs. Croft’s health, but, ultimately, he has no obligation to her. He prepares for his wife's arrival from Calcutta, anticipating it as if simply another season. He sees an Indian woman walking in Cambridge, an overcoat fastened over a sari. A dog tugs at the free end of her sari and the narrator thinks of Mala and the protection she will need in her new home. He moves into a furnished apartment found through the housing office at MIT and says goodbye to Mrs. Croft without ceremony. Compared to the century she has lived, his six weeks with her are a blink of an eye.
The narrator meets Mala at the airport, also without fanfare. He speaks to her in Bengali – the first time in America – and he takes her home. She presents him with two blue sweaters she has made him, but they fit poorly. It takes time for him to get used to having someone there, anticipating his needs. He and Mala are like strangers. He reluctantly gives her a few dollars, thinking only that it is a duty and, when he returns, he finds more kitchen tools and a tablecloth. Mala is making the apartment their home. Still, they talk little.
One day, the narrator suggests they go out. Mala dresses in a beautiful sari and parts her hair in an elegant fashion. The narrator regrets the suggestion immediately, as she is overdressed. But they go walking out into the balmy night. Finding himself on her street, the narrator takes Mala to Mrs. Croft’s house. Helen answers the door. He is alarmed to realize that Mrs. Croft has broken her hip. She tells the narrator that she called the police and he responds “Splendid!” Mala laughs. Mrs. Croft tells Mala to stand up. Mrs. Croft appraises her and the narrator wonders if she had ever seen a woman in a sari. But Mrs. Croft is pleased – Mala is a lady! The narrator laughs now, and he and Mala share a smile, the first real intimacy they’ve shared.
From that moment on, Mala and the narrator explore Boston with each other and fellow Bengalis. The time is like a honeymoon. Month later, Mala consoles the narrator when he learns that Mrs. Croft has died. She is the first person he mourns in America. It is a sad milestone.
The narrator continues to present day, when he and Mala have been married for decades and can barely remember a time when they didn’t know each other. They have a son who attends Harvard. They haven’t strayed much farther than Boston, living outside of the city and still remembering important landmarks from their lives despite the changing city. He and Mala have chosen to live their lives in this country. The narrator knows he is not the first person to seek fortune in another country, another life. But he still marvels at the distance traveled.
As the final story of Interpreter of Maladies, The Third and Final Continent leaves the reader with a decidedly positive notion of the immigrant experience in America. The narrator recalls his school days in London, rooming with other expatriate Bengalis, with a wistful tone. After his wedding, the narrator sits in bed poring over a guidebook of the USA, excited about his future in a new country. The only negative experience he has is at the YMCA. The narrator cannot adjust to the noise outside of his window. It is a moment that recalls Mrs. Sen’s line “Everyone, this people. Too much in their world.” Rather than hiding his head in the ground, however, the narrator tries to make good of it.
The narrator’s distress with the noise drives him to seek another residence. This leads her to Mrs. Croft’s boarding house. Mrs. Croft ends up being the first person the narrator mourns in America. Coupled with his ambivalence about Mala’s arrival, Mrs. Croft’s acceptance gives the narrator a hope for his new country. After the death of his widowed mother, there is nothing that draws the narrator to India. Again, this is a contrast to both Mrs. Sen and Lilia’s father. He does not mourn his past and his homeland and the family he has left behind. He is more like Lilia’s mother who understands that the opportunities afforded by a move to America outweighs the pull of the homeland.
In The Third and Final Continent, positive assimilation occurs hand in hand with a healthy marriage. At first, Mala, like Mrs. Sen, weeps for her family when she moves just five miles outside her ancestral home. But when she arrives in Cambridge, she comes with two sweaters for her husband. Although they do not quite fit, Mala is making an effort. She asks for money and spruces up the apartment and, importantly, adapts to her husband’s adherence to American practices, foods, and customs. Unlike Mrs. Sen, Mala is willing to put in an effort.
When the narrator takes his wife out for a day, he is at first dismayed at her dress. Rather than dressing casually, Mala puts on a beautiful sari, parts her hair in a special way, and applies jewelry fit for a night at a nice restaurant. The narrator feels a bit of unease in his relationship. It was an arranged marriage, and the two are strangers. He thinks only of the burden of taking care of her and of educating them both in American custom. On their time out, the narrator suddenly wants to show Mala his old haunts; he wants her to understand his past. At Mrs. Croft’s, the two share their first meaningful glances and laughs. These moments of shared experience create intimacy and their marriage truly begins in Mrs. Croft’s home.
Mrs. Croft also calls Mala a “perfect lady.” Mrs. Croft, born in the 1800s, has antiquated views of how women should dress. At first, the narrator is worried about what Mrs. Croft will think of his wife – as Sanjeev worries about his colleagues’ reaction to Twinkle. But Mrs. Croft finds her elegant and appropriately dressed. This moment of acceptance is an important one in the overall arc of assimilation. Being accepted by someone with even outdated opinions can lead one to believe that they will be accepted by everyone. It helps that the narrator and his wife live in “international” Cambridge, but it is crucial that they are open to this acceptance, lest they end up like Mrs. Sen.
Mrs. Croft marvels at the thought of an American flag on the moon, prompting the narrator to respond “splendid” every time the subject is mentioned. Being born in the 1800s, Mrs. Croft has seen an incredible amount of progress and human achievement unfold in front of her eyes. The moon walk to her is unthinkable. The coda at the end of The Third and Final Continent reveals the narrator is now an older man choosing to grow old with Mala in New England rather than return to India. They have a son who attends Harvard; their life is in America. To the narrator, the achievements of his own life are just as extraordinary as Neil Armstrong’s. He says he knows he is not the first person to seek a new life in a new land, but every life is a miracle. This coda leaves the reader with a satisfied and optimistic view of life following some tragedies both major and minor. Lahiri’s ultimate message is that life is unpredictable, carrying great sorrow and love, but special and extraordinary.