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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I sit by myself and spend the class trying to imagine Grendel from Beowulf and drawing pictures of him all over my notebook in red pen. I compile monster parts from fairy tales I've read: wide white teardrops instead of eyes; teeth protruding from stretching mouths; heads that nearly aren't there, dissolving into the lines of the page. Their torsos are blocky six-packs, short and disproportionate to long muscular arms, skin like leaves bulging with visible veins; their legs attached to a pair of skeletal feet, leaving bony, blood-filled footprints. They stalk over the page of notes I'm supposed to be taking. I pencil a crowd of mesh-faced men into the bottom right corner, axes and daggers cast uselessly aside, knees curling under them like paperclips.

Mr. Mackenzie writes Mock heroic on the board and under-lines it twice. In the background I hear someone call him "O Captain! My Captain!" because he is one of those teachers who tears up textbooks and says there shouldn't be a rubric for poetry. Mr. M delivers an impassioned speech about some Alexander Pope poem. He asks me a question, but since I've been drawing monsters instead of paying attention, I only know that the poem has something to do with haircuts. I curse myself for not listening and wonder if this is karma for the time I invented a Hindu holiday as an excuse to skip school.

"Disappointing," says Mr. M, and his head tilts sideways under the weight of his disappointment. "You have to do the reading," he tells me, "or there's no point in coming to class."

I want to tell him that I have done the reading—I've done more reading than any of these fools—but he turns back to the blackboard and makes a joke about how his wife never reads any books either, with the exception of Harlequin romances.

Mr. Mackenzie doesn't seem to notice the romance corner of the room, where Amy and her boyfriend are caressing each other's faces. I imagine them framed in a circle on a red paper-back cover. In an article on the web, I read that if a boy touches your face, it means it's true love. I read a lot of these articles and they always have useful advice.

The boyfriend bends his neck to lay his head on Amy's shoulder. With his googly eyes shut, he's almost handsome. It's the one time I've seen him look anything other than stupid. The only person's head I can remember being that close to mine is my mother's. It's painful trying not to yearn for that peculiar, intimate warmth of a human skull pressing against you. Amy sighs her chin into the boyfriend's palm. She pulls at his nose and he embeds his fingertips into her cheeks. I worry that they will gouge each other's eyes out.

I wait for Amy by the side entrance after school as I always do, though I'm doubtful that she'll show up. After ten or so minutes, I give up and duck into the library. Nobody's using the computers, so I sign into my chatroom account. My screenname is Hrothgar14, though in retrospect, I probably didn't need the 14. I search for Ronald.

What a terrible day, I write to Ron1956.

You're early, he replies. What happened?

Amy ditched me for her boyfriend, I type, and then, because it's not like I'm in a committed relationship with this internet pedophile, I tell him that I have a crush on my middle-aged English teacher and about my moment of embarrassing inattention in class.

After a pause, Ronald types, Pretend I'm him.

I suppose what Ronald wants me to do is to enact a sexual fantasy I have about Mr. M via the internet. It's true that I spend much of class time and my own time fantasizing about my English teacher. I imagine us in a warm fireplaced room with burgundy wallpaper and claw-footed furniture, but we've disdained this furniture to sit on the floor. We read to each other from a copy of Beowulf—Mr. M holding the book as I turn its pages. Our heads are pressed together, and my hair is draped over one of his shoulders. In this fantasy I have flaxen hair despite being Indian, and I'm wearing an empire-waist gown and a wreath of flowers on my head. Mr. M is dressed similarly in eighteenth-century garb, like maybe a navy waistcoat and white pantaloons. We sip from glasses of wine ... no, goblets of wine ... no, chalices of wine, and we're uttering guttural words to each other in Middle English. The fireplace f lashes behind us like an unanswered chat window.

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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