This paper will examine the ways in which North American travel accounts and film documentaries of Hunza, in Northern Pakistan, which were produced during the 1950s and 60s, depicted the region as a paradise where the inhabitants lived supernaturally long lives in a state of rude health. Previous scholars such as Shafqat Hussain and Harvey Levenstein have correctly noted the Mir of Hunza’s role in manipulating these Western travellers to have an idealised impression of his kingdom and the dietary habits of his subjects. They have, however, treated these accounts in a homogenous fashion and have not sufficiently differentiated various North American narratives from one another. In contrast, this paper will engage in an in-depth analysis of these narratives. The discussion will examine the ways in which they were informed by James Hilton’s novel The Lost Horizon (1933) and his fictional depiction of Shangri-La. It will identify the diverse uses the Hunza narrative was put to, whether it be to construct a travelogue, an ethnography, a recipe-lifestyle guidebook, an organic farming treatise, a yoga-instruction manual or a cinematic spectacle. Furthermore, it will delineate the varying ideological purposes which these narratives served, which ranged from promoting a counter-cultural lifestyle, a puritanical form of Christianity, or to even in one case to demonstrating the superiority of North America over both Asian and communist societies. The paper will come to an understanding of why Hunza and its peoples could be discursively deployed to suit such distinct purposes. Finally, it will account for why even when these North Americans were confronted with some of the harsh realities of life in Hunza they still clung onto notions that Hunza was a veritable Shangri-La.
Ashok Malhotra is Senior Lecturer in History at Queen’s University Belfast. His is an historian of British India and is currently working on how agricultural and nutritional research undertaken in colonial India in the early twentieth century influenced the organic movements in Britain and North America. He is the author of Making British Indian Fictions, 1772–1823 (Palgrave, 2012) and co-editor of a special section of South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies (2021) on ‘Nutrition, Identity and the Improvement of the Indian Body Politic, c. 1920–1970.
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