It all began one evening in 1962. The Sino-Indian war was almost at an end. Kartik Chandra Paul, a trainee with the Indian Army, was sitting under the open skies in Fatehgarh, Uttar Pradesh. Suddenly his attention was drawn skywards, to Venus, the evening star, and the North Star, or the Alpha Ursae Minoris, glowing steadily.
Over the weeks that followed, Paul, a class eight dropout, noticed the positions of these two celestial bodies did not change. His interest in astronomy was piqued. He turned to the works of astronomers Ptolemy, Copernicus and Galileo, reading them voraciously and evolving his understanding of how the solar system works. By 1974, he had reached an inflexible conviction – it is the Sun that revolves around the Earth, not the Earth around the Sun.
For more than four decades since, Paul has been tirelessly trying to make the world believe that the geocentric cosmic model is correct as opposed to the heliocentric model scientifically held to be true. Since he was let go from the army in 1979 on grounds of eccentric behaviour, Paul has been drawing attention to his astronomical theories on the streets of Kolkata and Howrah by selling and distributing pamphlets, self-published thin booklets in English and Bengali, and making graffiti on the city’s walls, lamp posts, fire hydrants and electric boxes. His efforts – deluded or otherwise – haven’t gone unnoticed. Newspapers have profiled him, documentaries have been made on him. And next year, a film inspired by his life, featuring an A-list cast, is set to hit theatres.
Paul’s graffiti, usually created with white paint on a black background, include his distinctive drawings of the Earth rotating on its axis as the sun revolves around it. His handwriting (precise, neat) and the language (a mix of Bengali, Hindi and English) are unmistakable. There are bold proclamations like “The Sun goes around the Earth once in a year, hence seasons change” and “This new theory is a challenge for all scientists all over the world”. There is also the angst-filled question: “Are journalists and scientists blind?” He extrapolates on his theories beyond the polemics when he finds a wall that is large enough.
Some of the graffiti from the 2000s feature his recent corollaries. Prominent among them is his belief that there is no life on Mars because Mars is a planet, unlike the Earth, which he says is a “dead star”. “Planets should revolve,” said Paul, sitting on a makeshift bed in his Howrah home one afternoon. “[The] Earth is stationary. It was once a star which burned out and now lava flows underground. Only those celestial bodies who share this quality can have life. Mars is not one.”
After a pause, Paul seals his argument: “Prove me wrong if you can.”
At least two generations growing up in Kolkata and its adjoining areas, from the 1980s till the 2000s, have been mystified by his striking graffiti. Paul was also a regular fixture at the annual Kolkata Book Fair, until this year, when he was pushed out by the police after being accused of spreading anti-science messages. Now 75, he operates from the 12-foot-by-3-foot veranda in the ground floor of his two-storey home.
“People found Copernicus and Galileo incorrect and ridiculed them,” said Paul. “When people cannot prove you wrong, they [get] scared and choose to make fun of you.”
His booklets contain clippings of newspaper articles on him, illegible sketches depicting his new cosmic theory, and copies of three letters that he received from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which refuted his claims. One booklet features a cartoon of an agitated old man holding a staff. This, Paul says, is from an old story written about him. He also has snippets of a newspaper article on him headlined “Kolkata’s Copernicus” pasted on his walls. Paul has added an anti before Copernicus with a black marker. When asked why, Paul says it is for factual accuracy as he is disproving Copernicus.
Paul’s detractors – and he has many – describe him as a “lunatic” who is “anti-science”. But Paul is nonchalant about the insults he has had to live with. “I have been beaten, pushed around, laughed at,” he said. “When you don’t have the ability to talk science, what [else] can you do?”
Iconoclastic Bengali author Nabarun Bhattacharya once likened Paul to one of his fictional creations, the “fyataru” – the street-dwelling subaltern peoples of Kolkata who can fly at will and cause mayhem, rebelling against the city’s symbols of capital and its ideas of tradition and civility. But the fictional character that Paul most resembles is Bhattacharya’s eponymous hero of the novel Harbart. Harbart Sarkar is ridiculed for his lifestyle, and his belief in his power to communicate with the dead. Ironically, through his very public death, Sarkar ends up connecting a contemporary Kolkata, detached from its past, to the ghosts of the bloody 1970s.
Paul’s resolute belief in his theories, despite the odds stacked against him, says writer Indrajit Hazra, mirrors Kolkata’s stubbornness to stay rooted in a glorious past that is now long gone. “KC Paul’s story is joined at the hip with that of the city, which still believes in its utterly special, if no longer central, position in the country it is a part of,” Hazra wrote in his book, Grand Delusions: A Short Biography of Kolkata.
But for director Arijit Biswas and his co-writer Paramita Munshi, Paul’s 40-year crusade is a compelling story of grit and tenacity that has made its way into their film, Sun Goes Around The Earth. In the film, a Paul-like character TC Paul, played by Bengali theatre actor Meghnad Bhattacharya, goes around writing his theories on Kolkata’s walls with a brush and a can of paint.
“Here is a man who stood at one place all throughout his life and fought for his beliefs with zero resources,” said Munshi. “Staying in a shanty for years on the streets and living on Rs 20 a day just for your beliefs needs another kind of concentration.” Munshi refers to the time in the 2010s when Paul had left his home in Howrah to live on the road in Kolkata’s Rashbehari area for two and a half years after a feud with his family.
“If you taught me during my childhood that rosogolla is pantua and pantua is rosogolla, I will grow up believing it,” said Paul. “But once I have learned that rosogolla is rosogolla and pantua is pantua, I can never go back to being wrong, right?”
This black-and-white understanding of the universe has helped Paul survive countless run-ins with authorities, scientific guardians in the city and the casual heckler. Anything that remotely meddles with his cosmic model is gobbledygook to him. In a 17-minute documentary created by CockCrow Films, Paul, when confronted by a young man, tells him that concepts like black hole, dark matter or quantum physics are “fiction”, and therefore, it is pointless to argue about them.
But what lies at the root of Paul’s dogged conviction and his single-minded defiance of the established understanding of the universe?
Paul’s uncomfortable relationship with authority and traditional protocols goes back to his days in the army. First, he got a “red entry” against his name in 1974, when he published his theories in an edition of Amar Ujala and accidentally exposed the location of his battalion. The second time he angered his seniors was when he defied orders and wore a monkey cap to fight the cold in a high-altitude location. The final nail in the coffin was when, as a quartermaster, he was ordered to send 12 of his men to another point in Ladakh to unload trucks but he sent only four. “Who would unload my trucks then?” is his contention.
After his army stint, Paul returned home and took up a job at the West Bengal State Electricity Service. On off-days, holidays, or on his way to office, he would sell his booklets and pamphlets. After retiring in 2005, Paul used a chunk of his Rs 5 lakh pension to publicise his cosmic model. Bolstering his spirits was the support of places like the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, which is committed to studying the universe with a Vedic geocentric model, interest shown by like-minded researchers and civilians, and the letters he received from several universities and organisations such as NASA that often politely debunked his concepts.
“The roots of his decades-long occupation of the city’s walls lie in the discipline and focus that he gets from his military background,” observed Munshi. In November, when Paul met journalists at a press conference after the premiere of Sun Goes Around The Earth at the Kolkata International Film Festival, all he spoke about was his cosmic model, completely disregarding the fanfare around him. “You start a conversation with him and even if you steer it away in one direction, he will bring it back to his theories,” said Biswas.
Paul’s obsession has, however, cast a shadow over his family, especially his wife, 62-year-old Sapna Paul. Paul scoffs, when a request is made to speak to his wife and daughter-in-law. “They don’t know anything. Ask me your questions.”
A sudden phone conversation between Paul and filmmaker Saumya Sengupta, whose Paul-focused documentary The Geocentric Man has earned the ire of the censor board, provides a window of opportunity to speak to his wife in another room.
“Only I know how I have lived with this man,” bemoaned Sapna Paul. She complains about Paul’s poor financial management, his occasional disappearances from home when his four children were young, leaving her to take care of them and his gambling addiction. Has she seen the new film about her husband, whose houseful premiere made news at the festival? “No,” she said. “He never tells me anything.”
But his wife and his neighbours agree about Paul’s amiable and polite manner outside of home. While walking towards his home, Paul had greeted practically every acquaintance on the road with a smile. “His is a very nice family that keeps to themselves,” said Shekhar Das, a cycle-repair shop owner in the neighbourhood. “As for what he preaches, we are too uneducated to challenge him and the educated cannot keep up with him.”