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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Print Excerpt

Mr. M has chalk dust on the pocket of his shirt. I reach across the arm's length between us and brush the chalk off the fabric with my fingers. He frowns in a way I haven't seen him do before, the skin of his eyebrows pulling together and downward.

Here is where it's like the CD skips—a glitch in time. He lifts the shoulder straps of my backpack and slides them off my arms. He picks me up as the backpack thumps to the floor, and places me on the edge of the desk. The lights in the room are white rectangles in rows across the ceiling, and I look at them because I'm not sure if I'm supposed to look at Mr. M, whose head I want to hold in my hands, but I have this awful feeling that the second I touch his face, his features will turn to chain mail, the metal cutting the tips of my fingers. He pushes his head close to my neck and when he exhales, he smells like coffee, like cough drops, like an old man. He places my hands on the crotch of his pants, and I realize I am supposed to unbutton them. And so I do, very carefully and very slowly, recognizing the beige-ish fabric of the pants; they're one of the articles of clothing I have memorized and written down in my notebook, where I also keep track of my mom's invented idioms and my better homework grades, and where I record when a day is particularly beautiful. He moves one hand to grab my upper thigh, and the other hand under my shirt to grip my naked spine like it's the spine of a Norton Anthology.

I think of five things: Thought number one is of all the times I've seen him pick up a book in class and slam it face-down, pages spread open on the table. Thought two is wondering how far around the school hallways Amy and her boyfriend have gotten, hand in hand and laughing. Thought three is Ronald searching my neighborhood for house number 53, parking in my empty driveway, and pressing the round white doorbell, thinking he's about to rape some stupid little girl. Four, I hope my parents arrive home soon, so when this is over, I can phone them to pick me up. And five, I remember the time I overheard Mr. Mackenzie saying to another male teacher, "What a dog," in reference to a girl, an expression I didn't know people still used. It had taken me a moment to realize what he meant, before I convinced myself that I must have misheard him, before I pictured the head of a dog on a female human body, sad-faced and teeth bared.

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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