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

    Paperback:
    Jun 27, 2023, 384 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Ahima
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Me: "Dough beats sugar."

Amy: "Tim Hortons has both sugar and dough."

That gave me pause, so we invented a Dough-Sugar-Cheese version of Rock-Paper-Scissors and settled on going to the Halifax Brewery Market, which has all three.

Then we sparred over whether Americans have the right idea about making the drinking age twenty-one.

Amy: "If we were Americans, it'd be seven more years until we could celebrate our accomplishments with champagne."

Me: "That's two additional years for us to accomplish something."

Next, we debated whether a mustache can make someone handsome.

Me: "Maybe ... in the right light ... on the right face ..."

Amy: "No. Don't be stupid."

I can't tell if it's only in my head that our exchanges have grown pricklier. Did we always fall on opposite sides of an argument? I catch myself conceding, letting her have the power. A month ago, during March Break, Amy got a boyfriend. Now I worry she might drop me, like gym clothes turned pink in the wash, or a hair elastic that's lost its stretch.

Mr. Mackenzie appears at the end of the hallway. As he walks toward the English office, I turn to page five of Beowulf. Amy deliberately flicks a big piece of varnish at me with her thumb and middle finger. So I go: "Amy, what's wrong with you? Why do you always have to deface our school?"

Mr. Mackenzie nods down at us, unlocks the office, and shuts the door behind him.
Amy turns to me and says, at full volume, "At least I haven't memorized every article of clothing owned by my English teacher."

"Curse you, Amy," I whisper-shout at her, trying to bury my smile. I cup the shards of floor varnish in my palms and drop them right on her head.

She laughs, shaking out her white-blond hair so the pieces scatter. Amy likes to joke that I spend so much time gazing at Mr. M that I must have his whole wardrobe memorized by now; except it's not a joke, because I know that he owns six button-downs (three shades of blue, one white pinstriped, one cream, and one gray), and four pairs of beige-ish brown pants, and white athletic socks that show when he sits down. Only once have I seen him wear a pair of jeans, at the English Club fundraiser— a car wash to raise funds and awareness for the literature of the Augustan period. We used the money we made to buy used copies of Gulliver's Travels and then we just handed them out to people on the street. Mr. M called it "Spreading the Word." He smiled when he said it, his mouth an open oval, thumbs tucked into his front pockets like he was a cartoon cowboy. It took me the first half of the car wash to adjust to this new, jeans-wearing version of my English teacher, but then his effortlessness charmed me, and I decided that his casual style did not take away in the least from his devotion to our cause. When the bell rings, Amy gathers her stuff and waits while I write down today's date and make a note underneath:

Cream button-down. One shoelace coming untied. I record these lists of clothing, and other thoughts and observations, in a sleek black pocket notebook like the kind Mr. M says Hemingway used to use.

That afternoon in class, I notice Mr. M's socks slouched around his ankles. I dream of ducking down to the half-peeled floor, crawling under his desk, and pulling them up for him.

Because of all this pent-up sexual frustration, I've cultivated a new hobby: interacting with pedophiles in internet chatrooms. Or not pedophiles, but rather one pedophile in particular. His name is Ronald. We've been talking online for about a month. He asked me to think of him as my boyfriend, though he's really more of a manfriend, because he is forty-one years old. When I told him I was fourteen, he replied, Your age is my age in reverse, as though that's a sign we are meant to be. He says I'm exotic because of my Indian background, so I haven't told him I was born in Halifax. Four or five days a week, after I'm done with school and English Club meetings, I go on internet dates with Ronald the Pedophile. We have serious discussions about the pros and cons of Netscape Navigator versus Internet Explorer, and about the proliferation and potential of the World Wide Web. Sometimes I send him neat facts I learned from my dad's Encarta CD-ROM.

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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