Reading Dickens Gave Me, An "Untouchable" Kid in Pakistan, Great Expectations

I grew up a nomad in Pakistan, part of a caste that was considered untouchable. I scavenged garbage, begged on the streets, and learned to read Urdu by picking up discarded school books that my mother, a housemaid, would bring me from the homes of rich kids in Lahore. Books soon became my weakness; I would rush to them as soon as she put the pile on ground.

That was when, at about 13 years of age, I discovered Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations,” which would change my life.

Dickens’ characters became my heroes. Most see his writing as social commentary that helped Victorian England understand poverty, but to me he provided hope. I pored over his books while sitting in our leaking tent, surrounded by the muffled snoring of my siblings. These heroes felt close to my heart, life, and background. Though I was growing up as a teenager on the street in 21st-century Pakistan, I could relate to 19th-century British literary heroes like Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, and Pip — we were all living in poverty amidst great wealth.

I still remember myself as a little, hungry garbage scavenger. I would eat whatever I found. Once, tempted by hunger, my older cousins tried to convince me to steal mangoes. Oliver Twist spoke to me from the pages to tell me that people can force me to do bad things, but nobody can make me a bad person: circumstances, hunger, or even bullying cousins cannot turn me into something I do not want to become. I always have a choice. I didn’t steal the mangoes — though I was still beaten by the owner, who thought I did, and again by the police. Even so, it was thanks to Dickens that I knew I could choose right over easy.