| Rina after the graduation ceremony
London, July 12: The Chancellor of the University of Sunderland, Lord Puttnam of Queensgate, had a special reason to be proud yesterday as he congratulated this year’s crop of 3,000 graduates.
The award-winning film producer paused during the ceremony at Sunderland’s Stadium of Light to whisper a few words of praise to one particular student ' his adopted daughter Rina.
She has graduated in pharmacy at the university’s School of Health, Natural and Social Sciences. Lord Puttnam said he “couldn’t be more proud”.
Rina grew up in a leper colony in Bihar’s Raxaul on the Nepal border, before being educated at one of Britain’s finest public schools, Gordonstoun in northeast Scotland ' alma mater to Prince Charles and several other members of the royal family.
Now that she has her degree, she hopes to return to India to help fight the disease that devastated her family.
Rina’s journey began in 1994, when Lord Puttnam’s wife Patsy visited India with Daphne Rae, the wife of the former Westminster School headmaster John Rae.
“I’d been asked by Daphne to be her eyes and ears on a tour of community projects that were being funded by a Laura Ashley charity,” said Lady Puttnam.
“One of those projects was the Little Flower Leprosy Mission. I was given the specific task of helping this lovely little girl called Rina to improve her English. To be honest, I’ve never really encountered anyone like her before; she was like a mini-Concorde, absolutely jet-propelled in the intensity with which she did things.”
Rina Kumari was seven when she arrived at the colony with her four sisters and their parents. They had been driven out of their village after her father developed leprosy in his fingers and toes.
For Rina’s father, taking his family to the Little Flower Leprosy Mission at Sunderpore in Raxaul was a last resort; before that, he had been reduced to begging.
“Rina is our blossom in the dust,” said Father Christu Das, who runs the mission.
After learning to read and write at the mission school, Rina was encouraged by the Father to go to boarding school in a nearby town, at the age of eight.
Rina and Lady Puttnam quickly struck up a rapport.
“In May (1994), I was picking her up from Heathrow,” said Lady Puttnam, who chose to be Rina’s mother as she studied at Gordonstoun which offered her a free scholarship.
For Rina what followed was not so much a crash course in British culture as a head-on collision.
Rina said everything was so strange at Gordonstoun (annual fees of '21,000), known for its philosophy of a cold bath before breakfast. “Yet at the same time it was so wonderful. I found myself going on expeditions to the mountains; I found myself on a sailing boat feeling seasick; and playing hockey in the snow.”
Before long, her cheerful acceptance of soakings and sub-zero temperatures began to win respect throughout the school.
“No question about it, Rina was a hit right from the start,” said Gordonstoun’s headmaster, Mark Pyper, who offered her the scholarship, which was donated anonymously.
It wasn’t all plain sailing, though. Early on, it became clear that Rina’s English wasn’t strong enough to get her through her science A-levels. Her scholarship was duly extended from two years to three.
“Throughout her time here, I never once heard her talk about her past ' she was much more interested in the future,” said Jenny Pyper, the headmaster’s wife.
Rina agreed. “Ever since I was eight, I’ve been away at school,” she said. “As a result, my concept of home and family is perhaps a little more vague than other people’s. But I call Patsy and David ‘mother’ and ‘father’ when I am with them, and I know they will keep me close to them forever. I feel so fortunate that they found me.
“At the same time, of course, I have my own mother and father back in India, and I know they love me, too. That ' and all the help that my teachers have given me ' gives me the faith to keep straight on the track.”
Rina is concentrating on the next immediate challenge, getting into medical school.
“To be a qualified pharmacist and to know about healing drugs is wonderful, but to be a doctor who can prescribe those drugs would be the perfect combination,” she said.
“When Rina’s mother and father first sent her away to school, they were rather ostracised by other parents at the mission,” said Lady Puttnam.
“It just wasn’t the traditional thing, especially for a girl. Now, though, everyone has seen what Rina has accomplished and they want the same for their children.”
It is exactly what Father Christu Das hoped for when he sent his little “blossom in the dust” across the sea to Scotland.