The Most Precious Substance on Earth by Shashi Bhat

This is a novel made up of stories highlighting different stages of a woman’s life. I loved this book for the structure, the humour, and the character’s flaws. Not to mention the Halifax setting – as you know, I always appreciate a local setting.

There is an incident that takes place early on in Nina’s life that could be described as traumatic. This experience likely colours everything that comes after: dictating the kinds of decisions she makes and how she feels about herself and the rest of the world. However, she doesn’t dwell on them – they do not become the focus of the book. This, I found to be a nice change of pace.

So what does become the focus of the narrative? The direction of her life, her self-doubts, her thoughts and experiences. Figuring life out, with all its ups and downs.

Young Nina has a crush on her 8th grade English teacher…

That afternoon in class, I noticed 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.

And is exploring the new world of the internet…

Because of all this pent-up sexual frustration, I’ve cultivated a new hobby: interacting with pedophiles in internet chatrooms.

She goes on a band trip where she experiences a lot of things, but none of them involve playing in the festival…

Earlier this morning the ratio of parents to band members at the Halifax airport was nearly two to one. My Mom befriended and exchanged numbers with the two other Indian moms, while my dad struck up conversations with the teachers, questioning them about the trip’s educational objectives and confirming for the second time that boys and girls would be staying in separate areas of the hotel.

She has a friend named Amy, whose life starts to go sideways, and all Nina can do is watch…

School without Amy is like a sitcom where the actor playing the main character suddenly dies and the writers are forced to rework the show around it: there’s a negative space, a subtraction in the universe where Amy should be. In the mornings, I snooze my alarm ten minutes and then another ten minutes. When I wake, my stomach is roiling with dread. I’m afraid now, the fear so deep it tangles through my intestines and spills up like bile.

Nina’s parents are very loving, but don’t always know what to do…

My parents begin to avoid me, unsure how to handle this sullen animal. At night, when he thinks I’m asleep, my dad prays at my bedroom doorway, at a safe distance. My sadness makes them shy; it pours into them like second-hand smoke.

Nina becomes a teacher who is not always so sure of herself…

I feel like I’m facing in the wrong direction, like I should be on the other side of the room, listening instead of talking. Do students not bring sharp pencils on the first day? Do they not use mechanical pencils now? Or pens, for that matter?… Am I allowed to confiscate cell phones?

Nina considers other careers…

  • Massage therapist–but I don’t like touching people.
  • Librarian–but how many jobs are there? Would I have to move to Truro?
  • X-ray technician–but how much radiation are you exposed to?
  • Vet technician–but could I put an animal to sleep? Is it more tolerable to teach a class or to watch an animal die?

She takes a toastmasters course to give her more confidence in front of the classroom…

The students are watching me intently. Because I don’t know their names yet, they’re like a single entity, a cluster of amoebas that were short on resources, so they blobbed together into one multinucleate organism. The organism doesn’t speak. It just stares.

She feels betrayed by Haligonians when her laptop goes missing…

As a Haligonian, I trust other Haligonians. Maybe not every Haligonian, but Haligonians as a group. Halifax is a city where everyone’s on a first-name basis with Glen the busker, who plays the accordion from his electric wheelchair on a corner of Spring Garden Road. Where folks wave back at the Harbour Hopper, the amphibious tourist vehicle full of Americans on a cruise ship excursion. Where a city bus driver strums a ukulele to entertain passengers at long red lights. Where Global news featured a story about masked men wandering the city performing random acts of kindness. I always thought Haligonians would watch my stuff when I went to the washroom.

Online dating is not her thing…

Online dating is an embarrassing punishment for a mediocre crime: not finding love in the pre-internet world.

Nina loves Boober and Marjory the Trash Heap from Fraggle Rock. She used to watch Gilmore Girls every Tuesday night with her mother. She wonders if she has been a good enough friend. She fixates on the rules that govern teacher/student relationships. She starts a blog at a time when blogging is no longer “the thing to do.” One of her students writes a poem about her eating disorder, and Nina doesn’t know what to do. Another student develops a crush on her and freaks her out.

But, for all her doubts and ups-and-downs, sometimes Nina gets it just right.

There are some classes where you spend the whole time laughing. Where you say something and someone else responds and then somebody else, and nobody raises their hands and you just talk… Once in a while, in those classes, I’d start talking and find myself more articulate than I ever was in real life. I would forget that there was anybody or anything outside that classroom at all. Here was a spider in my mouth spinning music, and here was the crescendo like a pouring of silk, the delirious feeling of epiphany.

16 thoughts on “The Most Precious Substance on Earth by Shashi Bhat

    • Naomi says:

      I’m not sure why it’s Haligonian, but Haligonian it is! And, for the record, I would not leave anything on the table while going to the bathroom. At least, not without asking the person at the next table to watch it for me. 😉

  1. wadholloway says:

    That’s nice that she thinks (or maybe thought) her fellow citizens were trustworthy. I rely on my fellow truckies not to steal stuff. My compromise is that I leave my truck unlocked, and quite often the engine running, but my wallet and phone never eave my hands or pockets.
    Also Gilmore Girls and internet dating, but have I started blogging after it was a thing?

  2. Marcie McCauley says:

    So you know I’ve already read this one, and not all that long ago either, and I am surprised just how much I enjoyed reading through all the quotations you selected anyway. I just love this book overall. And I know we talked about how it was an interesting match for Crocuses Hatch from Snow (Jaime Burnet) but just while reading this (and thinking about her difficult past) I also remembered Eva Crocker’s All I Ask (but i think that was St. John’s?) and how it resonates with coping mechanisms and aftereffects. (But of course I laughed hardest at the librarian in Truro thing.) The balance between striving and existing feels so right.

    • Naomi says:

      I think this story flows more naturally than Crocuses, although they are both very Halifax-y. It doesn’t seem to be trying so hard. I can see how you might also compare it to All I Ask (St. John’s, yes). All of them about how to cope with grown-up life.
      I laughed hardest about the librarian in Truro, thing, too! Did she choose Truro randomly? Or is it a think that new librarians can only find jobs in Truro? Add to that that one of our librarians came here from Halifax because he couldn’t get a job there. But I’m so glad he did, because his wife is my friend, the rug-hooker. 🙂

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