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 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.