I thought I’d start off with a question that I get asked all the time. “Why does the main character in A Handful of Dust have such a strange name?”
Finding names for characters is one of the aspects of fiction that I find most difficult, and in the case of this character (since it’s really just me), especially so. I didn’t want a name that reminded me of anyone, or implied character traits that would be misleading. During my search, I came upon a Sanskrit word, Nagashana, which literally translates as “peacock, whose food is snakes.” On a trivial level, this name satisfied my two conditions: it certainly didn’t remind me of someone else, and it didn’t imply misleading traits the way “Buck” or “San Peligroso” or “Mary” would.
But on a deeper level, it was immediately the right name to use. You see, at the time, I could only trace my family matrilineally back to my mom’s mom’s mom, DeEtta Peacock. Since a matriarchy makes more sense to me than a patriarchy (one of the themes of the novel), I liked aligning myself with the Peacock clan. As far as the “whose food is snakes,” i.e. who is nourished by the Snake — a major theme of the novel is the Snake being a symbol for the Earth, and as the novel reveals, the character of Nagashana (and the me he’s based on) is literally the Peacock who is nourished by the Earth.
When I was giving a reading for a university writing class once, an Indian student asked, “Nagashana is a Hindu god; aren’t you worried that you may offend Hindus by using a name for a god as your character?” (I think the implication may have been, “you arrogant bastard, how dare you compare yourself to a god!”)
I explained my reasons for using the name and said I meant no offense, but the answer I would have given if I weren’t still trying to convince this jerk to buy a copy of the book, is this:
If anyone is offended by someone’s use of a word that they consider “holy” (all words are, incidentally), that person is clearly wrapped up in the dogma of their religion rather than the essence of it. The name is not the Being. The map is not the land. Words can never hold the Nameless. Which is why Lao Tzu said, “The Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao” and why some nomadic Hebraic tradition attested that the true name of Jehovah could not be spoken. Those wrapped up in the essence of this religion knew that this meant that the big spirit of the cosmos can’t be contained by a human word (you can’t limit the Limitless). Those caught up in the dogma of it, stoned people to death for saying, “That halibut was good enough for Jehovah.”
Saying “god damn” is not taking the lord’s name in vain; using god to justify invading Iraq is.
And as far as the implication that it’s egotistical to call oneself god, it’s the exact opposite of ego. Our ego makes us think we’re separate from the Eternal, the Nameless, the Tao, the grand pooh-bah in the sky. I am god just as you are god and everything known and unknown is. This is why the Mandukya Upanishad says, “All this that we see without is Brahman. The Self that is within is Brahman.” (Hint for winning an argument with a dogmatist: Always quote their own scripture to them; it will always prove them wrong, and usually force them to acknowledge that they have no idea what they’re talking about, they’re merely regurgitating what some mean, old guy told them to think.)
As far as being a Peacock, I’ve since traced my genealogy back to my mom’s mom’s mom’s mom’s mom’s mom’s mom whose name was Sarah Miller, but I don’t know her maiden name. Which I guess means that Nagashana’s name should be “the Unnamed-Unknown who is nourished by the Earth.” Works for me.