Excerpt from The Most Precious Substance on Earth by Shashi Bhat, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Most Precious Substance on Earth

by Shashi Bhat

The Most Precious Substance on Earth by Shashi Bhat X
The Most Precious Substance on Earth by Shashi Bhat
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2022, 272 pages

    Jun 27, 2023, 384 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Ahima
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Why I Read Beowulf

I started reading Beowulf about a week ago, not because it was on the syllabus, but because I am in love with my English teacher. I would read anything for him. The book's cover is stark and grayscale, a black background with the title in white block letters. Below the title is the outline of a man, but just his top half—like a passport photo, except the outline is filled with silver chainmail. I keep turning back to this picture on the cover and wondering how they made it look three-dimensional, half expecting the pattern of metal to bulge into discernable features, to turn into a man's face.

Once I finish the book, I will drop casual references to it in class or at English Club meetings. "This reminds me of my favorite epic poem," I will say, pretending I don't know that it's also my English teacher's favorite epic poem, and then I will quote from it brilliantly, lingering on the alliteration. Mr. Mackenzie will pause, turning away from the blackboard to face me, still holding a piece of chalk in his hand. Sometimes, in my most reckless moments of imagination, I see him dropping the piece of chalk in amazement.

I am not sure yet exactly which passages I will quote. I'm only on page four, which I reached a few minutes ago, while sitting in the hallway outside the English office with my best friend, Amy. As per our routine, we arrived exactly forty-five minutes before the morning bell, by the side entrance closest to our lockers. We unloaded textbooks and binders and reloaded with different textbooks and binders, then wandered over to the English office, making ourselves comfortable on the ground beside the door while cackling over inside jokes we've shared since Grade 6. Today, as usual, I'm reading and Amy is peeling the varnish off the floor. The varnish lies in a loose coat over the hardwood, and cracks as we step over it. In the short time I've been attending Sir William Alexander High School, I've already seen so much of the building deteriorate; it seems like every day another part of it breaks off. Back in September, I bicycled by and looked at the school—at its heritage red brick and white trim, its tall, narrow windows, its spacious, dandelion-filled lawn—and I thought, with affection, That is my high school, relishing the still-newness of Grade 9. Just at that moment, a piece of one of the window frames freed itself from its hinge and fell to the pavement.

Amy peels the varnish off the floor in patches all over the school. During lunch, she peels the floor of a second-floor alcove, where we eat with our legs crossed in front of us, sandwich bags in our laps, backs against the concrete walls. During fourth-period Phys Ed, she peels the floor in the gymnasium while we stretch, and then leaves the waxy scraps in small piles here and there. Later, when we're made to do push-ups, people's hands and shoes sometimes land on these piles and their limbs go sliding sideways. Eventually, the whole floor will be stripped bare.

Today, she's taking breaks from peeling the floor to peel her breakfast orange, trying to unravel the skin in one long, unbroken strip.

"You're getting floor germs on your orange," I tell her.

"Um, excuse me, it's a tangerine," she says. "And I'm strengthening my immune system." She wipes her hands on the pockets of her cargo pants. "I had a bowl of dirt instead of cereal this morning. Gravel instead of marshmallows."

To the tune of the Cheerios jingle, I sing, "The one and only Gravel-O-oh-oh-oh-oh ..."

"What was that?" She looks at me askance.

I cringe. Lately, she's been resisting my banter. My word-play and cereal commercial parodies go unappreciated. These days, Amy seems to disagree just to disagree. Already this morning we had a difference of opinion on whether to eat at Tim Hortons or Pizza Corner after school.

Amy: "Sugar beats cheese."

This is the full text of the first chapter of The Most Precious Substance on Earth by Shashi Bhat. Copyright © 2022 by Shashi Bhat. Excerpted by permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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