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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There is no pause at all as I hear a soft, wheedling voice say, "You didn't think I'd call, did you?" And then the door to my bedroom opens.

I see a man standing there, peering around the door frame at me with this slow grin and saying, "What do you want for dinner?" because the man is my father. I immediately hang up the phone and tell my dad rice is fine as always for dinner. He asks what I've been doing for the past hour, and I tell him I've been researching the incarnations of all the various Hindu gods.

"Oh-ho—wonderful, Nina," he says, clicking his tongue in approval and giving me a thumbs-up. "Surely I believe you. After dinner I will have a quiz prepared, so get ready!" He walks out chanting the avatars of Vishnu.

The next day I'm at the school's side entrance by 8:15 a.m., waiting to tell Amy about what happened with Ronald. I've been practicing telling her the story in my head, adding and deleting details to entertain her. "And then I gave him my phone number," I'll say, "and he actually called." Amy will ask why I expected anything else, and I'll shrug. She'll ask what I'll say if he phones again, and I'll say I have no idea, and then together we'll come up with a plan.

I wait until 8:45. Amy doesn't show. She isn't in Music either, or in Science. So when I walk into English class, I'm not expecting to see her. She's there, though, just not in her usual desk in the second row, next to mine.

She's sitting with her boyfriend, in the far corner, right below a poster that says, I before E except after C, except when your weird neighbor seizes a sleigh with eight feisty reindeer. The boyfriend's name isn't even worth mentioning. He was in my Grade 4 class, but everybody avoided him because he was the only kid in Grade 4 who admitted to masturbating. He would try to join conversations, but people ignored him, so he would just give up and stare at the wall. Then one day, he started talking to the wall, telling it things and asking it questions, like "Why won't they talk to me?" and "All I have is you," and so on. I bet he and Amy have similar conversations now.

Before Amy started dating him, and before I had fully fallen for Mr. M, we used to spend class time laughing fitfully and soundlessly behind our open notebooks. The first book assigned to us was Washington Square, which we both hated, so we left Post-it notes throughout the pages of our copies to warn off future readers. Our notes said things like I hate this book, and Don't read any further, and Aunt Penniman is a flat character. Now I feel guilty for writing those Post-its and potentially ruining someone's unbiased experience of Henry James, and I've thought about retrieving my copy from the library and removing them. I won't though, because that would be like erasing our history, when already I can feel Amy slipping away.

It's different from that time in elementary school when she dyed her hair with lime green Kool-Aid and turned cool for a week. That whole week she had her lunch on the long, low, mud-colored radiator at the front of the school where the cool kids sat in a stylish row—a gallery of spiked mohawks and half-shaved heads—while I ate in the cafeteria with all the other loser Grade 7s. When the Kool-Aid washed out, she came back. But I'm convinced that the romantic relationships of weird teens last forever. Weird teens know that they'll never find better than each other. There's proof of this in yearbooks: if you flip through a four-year set at the school library, there's always that couple huddled by the lockers with their arms around each other—the gangly guy with the turtleneck and middle-parted hair and the girl with the Black Sabbath T-shirt, holding one hand up in a rock-on gesture. The following years they're spotted in the backgrounds of other photos but with tighter or baggier pants and longer or shorter hair and more or less rocking on, and so it goes until you read the drippy messages in their grad profiles, announcing that they'll be attending the same university accounting program. Neither is ever pictured with other friends. It might never be me and Amy sitting together and laughing again.

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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