Did you know that the whole idea of social hierarchy and privacy of the individual developed, at least in part, as a result of the chimney?
No, I didn’t either until I read a fascinating quote from James Burkes’s Connections that enlightened me. It may seem unbelievable but it rings true with how I have observed the differences between the West and Indian subcontinent countries such as Bangladesh.
Before we had chimneys, the tendency in European countries was for all members of the household – family, servants and even the whole community to sleep huddled around a central fire – a hearth. By the 13th century, European winters became much colder (something often referred to as the Little Ice Age though that is not, strictly speaking, accurate as a scientific term) and the hunt was on to find more effective ways of keeping warm. The chimney came to be invented.
The chimney is a rather clever idea – if properly built – as the physics of and up and downdraught mean that it keeps a fire going, allows out heat but all carries away the dangerous smoke and sparks. This ability to lead fumes away and to guide heat in predetermined directions led to the possibility of heating other rooms in the house too.
Now that other rooms could be heated, it was just a matter of time before the social classes would become separated. Special state rooms began to be built and had their own heating system separate to those of the servants and commoners. Heated bedrooms meant that people could sleep naked and the act of love-making became a personal, private affair.
By the 19th century, the upper classes lived completely separate to the working, with the wealthy living at the top of the house (where the heat rises) and the servants in the basement where, to keep their employers warm, they had to work in horribly hot conditions. Love was now an entirely private, romantic affair and, by the Victorian age, was not to be talked about outside of the bedroom. The age of social segregation and of the Private Individual was here to stay.
By contrast, the Indian subcontinent has never suffered from extreme cold – mountain areas such as Darjeeling aside – and so the need for efficient heating has never arisen. I have never set foot in a building – again, Darjeeling excepted – in India or Bangladesh where a fireplace had been built although I am sure that the British must have had some built somewhere along the line even if just for the sake of appearances. Every decent British gentleman had a fireplace.
The result has been that when the shitkal season approaches and the wintry nights draw in, you will find in villages and even on the streets of Dhaka, people gathered together huddled around a central fire, outside of the home. There has never been a need to build chimneys – although you will find some simple ones in some rannaghors or kitchens for practical reasons. So there has never been a need to segregate.
Of course, the rajas and other very rich elite might have built palaces and so on, but generally speaking people have mixed much more freely than they do in the West. There is an expectation that you will enter your neighbour’s house without invitation and the Westerner can often cause offence when he speaks to a Bangladeshi on the doorstep, blocking the way in unconsciously, and does not allow him access. Entry would not be expected in the West. It is, inAsia. Aside from extreme cases to do with great wealth or religion or in times of political unrest, the Muslim and Hindu will move side by side in peace with little sense of needing to be separate.
I spoke recently to a friend from Brazil (another hot climate country) who could not understand why the British like going out to the pubs so much. As we spoke and compared our respective cultures it became apparent that in his culture everything happens in the homes. Everyone goes to everyone else’s homes for fun, entertainment, learning, fellowship. In Britain, we go out to the pubs and the clubs to enjoy our social interaction on neutral territory. Then we retreat back to our private homes, shutting out society, finding safety in our own individuality and, metaphorically speaking these days, huddle round our own personal chimney.