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Fiction Contemporary Women

The Most Precious Substance on Earth

by (author) Shashi Bhat

McClelland & Stewart
Initial publish date
Aug 2021
Contemporary Women, Cultural Heritage, Coming of Age
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Aug 2021
    List Price

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2022 Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction Shortlist
A humorous coming-of-age novel-in-stories and a sharp-edged look at how silence can shape a life, from the winner of the Journey Prize. A Chatelaine Summer Reads pick.

“But wait, what happened to the girl?”
“I don’t know,” I say. I don’t tell him that what will happen to her is what happens to every girl.

Bright, hilarious, and sensitive fourteen-year-old Nina doesn’t say anything when her best friend begins to pull away, or when her crush on her English teacher intensifies. She doesn’t say anything when her mother tries to match her up with local Halifax Indian boys unfamiliar with her Saved by the Bell references, or when her worried father starts reciting Hindu prayers outside her bedroom door. (“How can your dad be happy when his only daughter is unsettled?”)

And she won’t speak of the incident in high school that changes the course of her life.

The Most Precious Substance on Earth tells stories of Nina’s life from the nineties to present day, when she returns to the classroom as a high school teacher with a haunting secret. And whether she’s pushing herself to deliver speeches at Toastmasters meetings, struggling through her MFA program, enduring the indignities of online dating, or wrestling with how to best guide her students, she will discover that the past is never far behind her.

Darkly funny, deeply moving, unsettling, and at times even shocking, Shashi Bhat’s irresistible novel-in-stories examines the fraught relationships between those who take and those who have something taken. The Most Precious Substance on Earth is a sharp-edged and devastating look at how women are conditioned to hide their trauma and suppress their fear, loneliness, and anger, and an unforgettable portrait of how silence can shape a life.

About the author

Shashi Bhat's short fiction has been published in several journals, including PRISM Interntaional, Event Magazine, The Threepenny Review, and The Missouri Review. Her story "Why I Read Beowulf" appeared in The Journey Prize Stories 24, and her story "Indian Cooking" was a finalist for the 2010 RBC Bronwen Wallace Writers' Trust Award. She currently resides in Halifax, where she teaches at Dalhousie University.

Shashi Bhat's profile page

Excerpt: The Most Precious Substance on Earth (by (author) Shashi Bhat)

I started reading Beowulf about a week ago, not because it was on the syllabus, but because I am in love with my English teacher. I would read anything for him. The book’s cover is stark and greyscale, a black background with the title in white block letters. Below the title is the outline of a man, but just his top half—like a passport photo, except the outline is filled with silver chainmail. I keep turning back to this picture on the cover and wondering how they made it look three-dimensional, half expecting the pattern of metal to bulge into discernable features, to turn into a man’s face.
Once I finish the book, I will drop casual references to it in class or at English Club meetings. “This reminds me of my favourite epic poem,” I will say, pretending I don’t know that it’s also my English teacher’s favourite epic poem, and then I will quote from it brilliantly, lingering on the alliteration. Mr. Mackenzie will pause, turning away from the blackboard to face me, still holding a piece of chalk in his hand. Sometimes, in my most reckless moments of imagination, I see him dropping the piece of chalk in amazement.
I am not sure yet exactly which passages I will quote. I’m only on page four, which I reached a few minutes ago, while sitting in the hallway outside the English office with my best friend, Amy. As per our routine, we arrived exactly forty-five minutes before the morning bell, by the side entrance closest to our lockers. We unloaded textbooks and binders and reloaded with different textbooks and binders, then wandered over to the English office, making ourselves comfortable on the ground beside the door while cackling over inside jokes we’ve shared since Grade 6. Today, as usual, I’m reading and Amy is peeling the varnish off the floor. The varnish lies in a loose coat over the hardwood and cracks as we step over it. In the short time I’ve been attending Sir William Alexander High School, I’ve already seen so much of the building deteriorate; it seems like every day another part of it breaks off. Back in September, I bicycled by and looked at the school—at its heritage red brick and white trim, its tall, narrow windows, its spacious, dandelion-filled lawn—and I thought, with affection, That is my high school, relishing the still-newness of Grade 9. Just at that moment, a piece of one of the window frames freed itself from its hinge and fell to the pavement.
Amy peels the varnish off the floor in patches all over the school. During lunch, she peels the floor of a second-floor alcove, where we eat with our legs crossed in front of us, sandwich bags in our laps, backs against the concrete walls. During fourth-period Phys Ed, she peels the floor in the gymnasium while we stretch, and then leaves the waxy scraps in small piles here and there. Later, when we’re made to do push-ups, people’s hands and shoes sometimes land on these piles and their limbs go sliding sideways. Eventually, the whole floor will be stripped bare.
Today, she’s taking breaks from peeling the floor to peel her breakfast orange, trying to unravel the skin in one long, unbroken strip.
“You’re getting floor germs on your orange,” I tell her.
“Um, excuse me, it’s a tangerine,” she says. “And I’m strengthening my immune system.” She wipes her hands on the pockets of her cargo pants. “I had a bowl of dirt instead of cereal this morning. Gravel instead of marshmallows.”
To the tune of the Cheerios jingle, I sing, “The one and only Gravel-O-oh-oh-oh-oh . . .”
“What was that?” She looks at me askance.
I cringe. Lately, she’s been resisting my banter. My word-play and cereal commercial parodies go unappreciated. These days, Amy seems to disagree just to disagree. Already this morning we had a difference of opinion on whether to eat at Tim Hortons or Pizza Corner after school.
Amy: “Sugar beats cheese.”
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 moustache 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 towards 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-blonde 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 grey), 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.
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.

Editorial Reviews

“How refreshing to have a character as witty, as vibrant, as sensitive as Nina. The Most Precious Substance on Earth is a brilliant, laugh-out-loud funny, and dangerously good coming-of-age story that offers sharp commentary on the very real realities women and girls negotiate every single day. Come for the laughter, stay for the wisdom. Shashi Bhat has crafted something special. More than a must-read, it is a must-share.” – Téa Mutonji, author of Shut Up You’re Pretty

"With language as lovely as it is razor sharp, Shashi Bhat paints an indelible portrait of the pleasure and pain of adolescence—and the scars it leaves behind. Like the young woman at its center, this novel-in-stories has a fierce voice, a soft beauty, and a huge heart."―Robin Wasserman, author of Mother Daughter Widow Wife

“Honest, hilarious, and profoundly affecting, The Most Precious Substance on Earth is rife with moments of such emotional clarity they made me gasp, and are still ringing in my mind days later. Bhat writes with such a deep understanding of the world that by the end of the book, I felt I understood it a little better, too.” – Amy Jones, author of Every Little Piece of Me

"A sharp yet profoundly tender coming-of-age story about silence. . . . This expertly written book will deeply move the reader." – Chatelaine
“Bhat approaches her weighty subject matter with grace and humor and, in doing so, finds a way of exploring trauma that is both realistic and tender. . . . [T]he novel could also be a parable for a modern world struggling to come to terms with its own secrets amid the reverberations of the #MeToo movement.
An empowering and liberatory coming-of-age novel for 'the girls who stay quiet.'" Kirkus Reviews

"Bhat examines how the things left unsaid affect us in a novel that is darkly funny and deeply moving." Quill & Quire

“High school is a setting ready-made for drama, a fact that Shashi Bhat exploits to great effect in her glorious novel. Bhat precisely captures adolescence with all its ennui and angst, and she is a master of observation, finding humour in the quotidian. Full of wit and insight, The Most Precious Substance on Earth is a joy to read. A sheer delight.” – Sharon Bala, author of The Boat People

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