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A small measure of peace

Rama Gottumukkala | Saturday, August 19, 2006

As a Film, Television and Theatre disciple, I continually find myself fascinated by the way life’s realities are reflected in the movies. Every film – from the all-time greats on down to the most mundane and mediocre ones – contains elements that awaken memories and stir the senses. Often the pictures we remember most vividly are those that remind us of people we love, places we admire or simply an emotion that triggers fond recollections of a particular time in our lives.

College is no different. Hollywood has been mining this source for decades, amounting to hundreds of films that broach the subject, some more successfully than others. Whether it’s a quirky character, unexpected plot curve or a singular line of dialogue, there’s something universally familiar about these films.

With this in mind, I tried to recall a scene from a film that most strongly reminded me of my Notre Dame experience. And, while my first gut instinct was to write a loving ode to the spiritual wonders of “Rudy,” for the sake of originality I forced myself to broaden my horizons.

Surprisingly, the film that surfaced most often wasn’t the tale of a pint-sized walk-on with barely a speck of athletic talent. It was director Edward Zwick’s “The Last Samurai.”

The film chronicles the account of American Civil War veteran Nathan Algren – played deftly by Cruise – and his capture at the hands of Katsumoto (Ken Wantanabe), a noble Japanese warrior unwilling to let the way of the sword expire. As Algren begrudgingly settles into his civil captivity, his attitude towards the samurai’s adherence to the time-honored traditions of Japanese culture changes from one of animosity to genuine wonder. A wayward warrior most of his life, Algren admits to a mysterious presence shrouding this small Japanese village deep in the mountains, a presence that envelops him despite its unfamiliarity. He tries to collect his thoughts in a journal, struggling to put on paper his wavering allegiances.

“This marks the longest I’ve stayed in one place since I left the farm at 17,” begins Algren. “I’ve never been a churchgoing man, and what I’ve seen on the field of battle has led me to question God’s purpose. But there is indeed something spiritual in this place. And though it may forever be obscure to me, I cannot but be aware of its power. I do know that it is here that I’ve known my first untroubled sleep in many years.”

When I first saw “The Last Samurai” in theaters, I was comfortably settled into my sophomore year at Notre Dame. But something about those words, penned by screenwriter John Logan, lodged in my mind like a welcome splinter. I wasn’t aware of it then, but they would come to epitomize what Notre Dame means to me after what seems like a lifetime here.

Although I was born in India, my family has been moving almost nonstop since I was three years old. In fact, by the time my Notre Dame career comes to a close, I will have lived under the shadow of the Golden Dome longer than any of the dozen other places around the world I have called home. When people ask where I’m from, my stock answer is usually, “All over, but I currently live in [blank].” It’s much easier than trying to spew out recollections of the spots in India, England and the United States where some of my fondest memories remain.

And while my Jesuit high school experience never felt unwelcome, I was raised Hindu and continue to learn something new about the Catholic faith everyday. In fact, the first time I was within earshot of a homily came during ninth grade at a required high school Mass. As the only Hindu in attendance, I felt lost as I clumsily tried to mimic the words and gestures of a foreign liturgy, wondering whether I’d ever fit in.

Fortunately, almost a decade later, all I have to do is glance across Notre Dame’s campus to find my answer. Whether it’s the green plains of the Quads or the shimmer of the lakes on a crisp fall day, there’s something about this campus that demands a quiet attention. While the Notre Dame family continues to be the driving force behind our University’s relevance, I can’t help but feel there’s something else at work here, something spiritual.

People talk about the Notre Dame campus as a closed bubble, sheltering her students from the rough realities of the outside world. But I’d like to think there’s something peaceful about this campus and this community that keeps pulling us back, often decades after we graduate.

A lifetime’s worth of memories are packed into this place by graduation’s end. But above all, Notre Dame is home. For the better part of four years – five if you’re lucky – this campus is all we know. Home isn’t always where you think it is, but often where you’re fortunate enough to find it. Or realize where it’s always been.

Glancing up at the auric light reflecting off Our Lady, it’s hard to verbalize exactly what makes Notre Dame special. All I can do is recall that scene from “The Last Samurai,” in which a quiet understanding creeps across Algren’s face. He finally understands what he’s found. Home.

Rama Gottumukkala is a fifth-year Film, Television and Theatre major who hails from all over and enjoys learning stenography in his second home, the DeBartolo Center for the Performing Arts. He currently resides in Houston, but looks forward to many more worldly travels in the years to come. He’s been ready for his fifth-year at Notre Dame his whole life and, despite his best efforts, couldn’t resist making this column a “Rudy” lovefest. Contact Rama Gottumukkala at rgottumu@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.