The View From the Pyramid's Top

In my fresh­man year, my good friend Pranav en­tered my hos­tel room to tell me that a some­one was call­ing him be­low to talk about “in­tern­ship op­por­tu­ni­ties” and “ca­reer de­vel­op­ment”. For­tu­nate­ly for me, he de­cid­ed to drag me into this as well, and I was hun­gry for any de­tour from drudgery.

At the hos­tel en­trance, a girl, who I’ll call Muskaan, vig­or­ous­ly greet­ed us and asked us to fol­low her as we talked. She start­ed with the usu­al pleas­antries, ask­ing us about our na­tive place, our hob­bies and the like. She was un­usu­al­ly in­ter­est­ed in all the dull an­swers we gave, and nod­ded with her peren­ni­al grin and beam­ing eyes. Her re­marks pep­pered with an oc­ca­sion­al wink. She was like a school play ac­tor giv­en the role of a char­ac­ter named Bub­bly.

“So what is this ca­reer de­vel­op­ment thing about?”, I asked. “Oh don’t you wor­ry, you’ll know soon, just fol­low me.” We fol­lowed her up the slope to the col­lege’s main gate, and on the way, she in­tro­duced us to two oth­er stu­dents who were a part of this. I asked her what this is about again, only for her to say that we will be told soon. At this point, I qui­et­ly told Pranav, “Dude, I think this is an MLM scheme”.

Muskaan caught that. “What is it that you boys are talk­ing about? You can tell me,” her smile still in­tact.
“Is this an MLM scheme?”
“What’s an MLM scheme?”, she fur­rowed her brow (yet still smil­ing).

We were asked for our phone num­bers as we walked out of the gate. I re­fused to give it, and said you will only get it if you tell us what this is whole op­er­a­tion is about. “Fine,” she con­ced­ed, “fol­low me.”

“Where?”, I asked.
“Sut­ta Gul­ly”.

Sut­ta Gul­ly was the dingy lane right out­side the col­lege gate where peo­ple went to eat and smoke. She of­fered me a cig­a­rette, which I re­fused. She smiled wider and said, “Good! Smok­ing is bad!”

As we fol­lowed her deep­er into the Gul­ly, I texted my room­mate say­ing, “Hey, um, you may need to get us out of here, if I am not back in an hour, as­sume some­thing’s gone wrong”.

Muskaan picked on our un­ease as we tread­ed the nar­row stair­case of a small house in the Gul­ly. When we reached the ter­race, she point­ed us to a room on the ter­race, with just one door, and oth­er peo­ple sit­ting in­side. I re­al­ized if I go in, the door will be shut and there’s no es­cap­ing un­til the brain­wash­ing is done.

“Go in,” Muskaan said. Pranav and I looked at each oth­er, and we could see a huge nope writ­ten on each oth­er’s faces. An old­er man came and asked us stern­ly, a stark con­trast from Muskaan’s ef­fer­ves­cence. “What hap­pened? Why aren’t you both com­ing?”

At this point I could not play along any­more. “Do you not see our point of view? We have been fol­low­ing you up these nar­row lanes over some­thing we have no knowl­edge about. You refuse to tell us what this is about. I think this is a ponzi scheme. We are done here.” Muskaan’s smile seemed to be a pained one now, as she looked at the man, hop­ing for a so­lu­tion.

“Fine. Go away.” he said.

We walked out as fast as we could.

The mys­tery of Muskaan’s scheme stayed in my mind for weeks. Of course that also gave me a fun sto­ry to tell my friends at lunch break a few days lat­er. As I was de­scrib­ing the weird­ness of Muskaan to them, I saw the eyes of my friend in front of me swing wide open. I felt my bag be­ing grabbed, and I got yanked out of my cir­cle of friends. I turned to see Muskaan, with a hos­tile smile.

“Were you talk­ing about me?”
“Uh, no, I mean, like, not you, but like the um, the strange­ness of it all, and how shady it wa—”
“Why don’t you come along and see what it is?”
“Are you ask­ing me to fol­low you again?”
“Look, I got­ta be hon­est with you, I think this is a ponzi scheme. I don’t even know any­thing about your or­ga­ni­za­tion or what­ev­er. I have seen no name, no ads, no so­cial me­dia, noth­ing.”
“You know Ola Cabs right? But do you ever see ads for them?”
“Uhh... they have ads every­where?”
“No! They are fa­mous only through word-of-mouth like us.”

I man­aged to drag my­self out of that mess, only to be pulled into an­oth­er one a month lat­er. I was sit­ting in an opt-in course about Busi­ness Mod­el­ling that was tak­en by se­niors in the col­lege, as a part of an af­ter-col­lege pro­gram. Our in­struc­tor slid into a rant about pyra­mid schemes, and how they swin­dle as­pir­ing young folk. He math­e­mat­i­cal­ly proved how you al­most al­ways lose mon­ey in such a scheme.

Right as I walked out of that class, a peer who sat in the cor­ner bench, walked up to me and com­pli­ment­ed my speech skills (my ‘speech’ be­ing one sen­tence to clar­i­fy some­thing with the in­struc­tor). My com­pli­menter told me that he has this men­tor, who runs many busi­ness­es. “Is this about ca­reer de­vel­op­ment?” I asked. He was pleas­ant­ly sur­prised that I could prac­ti­cal­ly com­plete his sen­tences for him. He want­ed to sell me Kiyosa­ki’s “Rich Dad, Poor Dad.” At this point, my ponzi sirens were blar­ing loud, and I duly yeet­ed be­fore he could say more.

I was an­noyed. It had been bare­ly two months into col­lege, and every­one was out here try­ing to hood­wink me. I asked my friends around if any­one ac­tu­al­ly knew what Muskaan’s pro­gram was. There had to be oth­er peo­ple. One of them knew a guy who knew a guy who ac­tu­al­ly paid ten thou­sand ru­pees to be­come a mul­ti­level mar­keter for some gener­ic, low qual­i­ty IT cours­es. Ap­par­ent­ly this was for a com­pa­ny called eBIZ. Had I gone into that room in that ter­race, I’d have been stuck there for three hours and heard high praise about a Pawan Mal­han. He was the man at the top of the pyra­mid. I looked him up and found a You­Tube video, ti­tled “dr Pawan mal­han sir en­try”.

Pawan Mal­han is a man who strug­gles to make an en­try. I saw in the video two young lads, one in a suit and the oth­er in a waist­coat and red bowtie. They were as­signed the ar­du­ous task of hyp­ing up his en­try on stage, which cu­ri­ous­ly had a large dis­play as the back­drop. To the sides of the dis­play were tow­er­ing im­ages of Dr Pawan him­self, hands fold­ed in front of his suit­ed fig­ure, look­ing down at the au­di­ence with a sub­dued smug­ness and an un­kempt grey stache.

On the dis­play, was a live feed of the stage it­self, cre­at­ing a dizzy­ing Droste ef­fect, that made the two Pawans on the side mul­ti­ply to in­fi­nite depth. Every­one in the au­di­ence seemed to be young men and women of my age, dressed in crisp white shirts and black trousers. The two lads were yelling at the au­di­ence, with a singsong crass­ness that be­trayed the for­mal­i­ty of all the at­tire in that au­di­to­ri­um.

“I have heard that, in this world, all the great and suc­cess­ful peo­ple have come from the back bench­es of so­ci­ety!”, said Suit, wig­gling his point­ed fin­ger, whose im­age rip­pled re­cur­sive­ly through the dis­play.

“Si­i­i­i­ir­rrr”, said Waist­coat to Suit, his shrill voice cut­ting through the hoot­ing crowd, “I have also heard, that in this world, there are those who have suc­ceed­ed, who sit at the front bench­es!”, as he ro­tat­ed his head to the crowd with an un­abashed smug­ness.

This back and forth con­tin­ued for ten min­utes straight. “You shall soon see the roof open to the great open skies!” spit­tled Waist­coat. “C’mon guys, where’s the noise?! C’mooonnn”, squealed Suit, his voice turn­ing pre­pu­bes­cent.

I skipped ahead by a few min­utes to con­serve my fast de­plet­ing will to live, to see the main man him­self. An­oth­er cam­era fol­lowed his la­bo­ri­ous jour­ney from out­side the build­ing to the stage. He was be­ing stopped every few steps by young women and men in suits drop­ping to his feet for bless­ings. Dr Mal­han dis­patched the bless­ings by plac­ing his hands over their heads, of­ten be­fore the young peo­ple could reach his shiny black shoes. At this point the hype men gave up on words, and were just plain­ly scream­ing their brains out, as Pawan made it to the stage wav­ing both hands at the ec­sta­t­ic crowd.

The back­ground mu­sic was a pep­py Bol­ly­wood num­ber, with lyrics trans­lat­ing to “God, Al­lah and Bhag­waan has made this man!” as lit­tle girls in dandiyas danced and cir­cled around the him. An­oth­er man hand­ed him a con­fused tod­dler in this chaos.

I skipped ahead by a few min­utes. He had still not spo­ken yet, as they were busy hand­ing him sev­er­al bou­quets over loud back­ground mu­sic. I skipped ahead some more, only to see that he still had noth­ing to say, as he was busy get­ting en­gulfed by more young peo­ple, with count­less hopes and dreams, gath­ered around him to touch his feet and take self­ies.

The video reached its end, with him not hav­ing spo­ken at all.

Dr Pawan Mal­han was ar­rest­ed five months af­ter that video was up­loaded, for dup­ing over 17 lakh peo­ple. While he may have fi­nal­ly got his over­due jail time, I can’t help but think of all those Muskaans who re­main im­pris­oned, de­spite walk­ing free.