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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While I'm upstairs crafting chat messages to Ronald, my parents are downstairs praying. They have created a god room in the basement, where Hindu gods and goddesses hang in rows on the blue walls, staring out with placid expressions.

You are as beautiful as a goddess, Ronald wrote to me once, after describing himself as agnostic. I had sent him a link to the GeoCities page where Amy and I had posted photos of ourselves that we took with her dad's new, outrageously expensive digital camera. We're posing in our oversized gym uniforms out behind the school, miming model pouts I don't think Ronald realizes are ironic. He studied the photos and told me that I'm infinitely more desirable than she is. I know this isn't true. Amy, with her slight figure and fair hair framing her unsmiling face, looks like the young girl on the cover of a V. C. Andrews novel.

I let Ronald know that I regularly watch To Catch a Predator on Dateline, and now he's into the show, too. There was one segment where the decoy thirteen-year-old invites the predator into a staged family home. The voice-over: "This is a house on an average street, in an average town. It could be your town. But there's something very different about this place ..." The predator enters wearing a large misshapen baseball cap atop his large shapeless head, unaware of the cameraman hiding behind the decorative curtain. The decoy chirps something about going to change into her bathing suit, and the predator smiles to himself and literally starts rubbing his hands together in anticipation, and I bet he has really dry hands. He has this backpack on that's maybe too small for a grown man, and he takes that off and starts rifling through it. But before we find out what monstrous equipment he has in this backpack, Dateline correspondent Chris Hansen emerges from behind the decorative curtain and introduces himself, and the predator removes his cap and uses it to cover his face.

Don't worry, my darling, Ronald said, after I synopsized the show, I am ten times the man he is. This made me question if Ronald knew how math works. Ten times a pedophile, I thought, as I examined the photos he'd sent me of himself. They featured no other people. Mostly they were of him leaning against a blank wall, his head distorted in a way that suggested he'd taken the photos himself with one out-stretched arm.

During tonight's conversation with Ronald, he asks for my phone number. I've been trying to read Beowulf but am wondering if there might be a movie version I could watch instead, and if so, whether the script uses quotes from the Seamus Heaney translation. So I'm pushing the Ronald conversation window to the side of my screen to look this up on 1MDb, when he types, Are your parents home? Can I call you? What is your phone number? All three questions in a single message. I picture him sinking back into an ergonomic chair in front of his desktop as he waits for my reply. And, maybe due to daydreaming about Mr. M and all my unrequited emotions, I start imagining what would happen if I fell in love with Ronald the Pedophile. He lives in Dartmouth, so it wouldn't be a long-distance relationship. Instead of internet dates, we could go on actual dates to local hotspots, and events like the Halifax International Busker Festival. We could climb to the top of Citadel Hill and take the historic guided tour— something I have always wanted to do, but Amy refuses to go with me. Would you visit Citadel Hill with me? I type, and Ronald replies, Yes, followed by an indecipherable emoticon. So I type my phone number in one swoop of momentum, without any spaces or dashes.

He dials the number just as quickly. The glossy red telephone on my desk rings, a screaming pair of lips. I let it ring four times, fanning myself madly with my copy of Beowulf, the chain mail face fluttering as I try to decide whether to answer the phone. If I don't answer, the call will go to the answering machine, and Ronald will leave a message accessible to my parents, because this is our landline—for some reason they won't get me a cellphone. Also, my parents are not at work or at the store or at a baseball game or wherever it is parents go when strangers call the house. While a weird man preys on their only child, my parents pray in the basement, singing light religious tunes in their atonal voices and clanging finger cymbals that compete with the ringing phone. At any moment, they might put down their xeroxed Sanskrit mantras and unfold their piously curled bodies to get up from the floor and answer it. I wonder if Ronald would pretend to be a salesman. I think if my parents pick up the phone, Ronald will probably never speak to me again. So I answer it.

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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