The cult of the pyramid scheme aka multilevel marketing – Times of India

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Hirak is an English Teacher, Published Author and Social Activist from Durgapur, West Bengal. Over the years he has had several of his articles published in various platforms, … MORE
The Enforcement Directorate has recently frozen the assets of a major US-based multilevel-marketing firm in India. This floods my mind with not-so-happy memories from my early adulthood. I was barely nineteen when a smart looking man wearing a smart dress came to my house with an acquaintance. He had a bag full of fancy bottles, a white board and markers. For the next three-four hours he went on sketching curious diagrams on the board and lecturing us on how we were losing out on big money.
He almost had my father convinced that years spent labouring hard in a government job was worth nothing in front of this new way of earning – the American way! In the end my father wasn’t convinced but I was. I wanted to make my family proud by jumping on to the gravy train early. So, I joined this man’s team – a cult, no less.
This man – let’s assume his name was Mr. ABC – gave me an address. So, I had to travel all the way to Kolkata to a posh office teeming with many like me. I had to buy my starter kit for a hefty price of Rs 4,400/- (quite a lot for 1999!) and report back to an “up-line”. I had to swear an oath of fealty to the group and I was expected to worship everyone above me in the hierarchy. Mr. ABC was the supreme God! I was bound to him like a slave to his master. In fact, everyone in his team was expected to start the day by singing paeans to his name.
My study became a dumping ground of cassettes and books and they didn’t come free. I had to buy all of them for an obscene amount of money like all the soap bottles in the starter kit. The divine directive was to gobble up all the propaganda material captured in those tapes and trashy books. You see, without those tapes and books, you were no man and certainly not a businessman!
I always wondered where those soap bottles, toothpastes and literature came from. I did ask about their origin once or twice. The standard answer was outlandish. Apparently, the soap came from American laboratories, and the books and tapes from American Universities! We had all joined the bandwagon of dreamers and were soon going to get rich! Filthy rich!
Well, things didn’t turn out to be quite as expected. I tried to sell the soaps but failed. Only a madman or spendthrift would buy insanely overpriced products no matter how glossy they looked. Everyone had a budget. The toothpaste wasn’t bad. I ended up selling a few boxes. But the rest was a sad saga of fixing appointments and returning home empty handed. Then came the time for course correction.
By then Lord ABC had taken a liking to me. I was serving his household day and night. From bringing groceries for his wife to carrying his briefcase in seminars, I was doing everything I could to please the almighty. I had even stopped wearing anything outside other than white shirts and black trousers. The guru’s firman!
He finally spoke one day. It was like revelation for the young me. He said I wasn’t bringing enough people into the team and I wasn’t using enough of the products at home. This – he said – was the simple hack to becoming a millionaire.
I began running from pillar to post trying to bring in more like me. But very few were ready to listen to a young adult peddling the American dream! As frustration began to pile, I began losing my cool. Soon, I was losing friends to a foul temper because they were not ready to buy my words. How stupid could they be? I wanted them to become millionaires!
I found another fool like me soon enough and then a few more. All of a sudden I was an “up-line”! My faith in my messiah’s words had been bolstered. Meanwhile my middleclass father bled silently as he stretched the monthly budget to accommodate my buying spree. I had to use more stuff at home!
Disillusionment happens all of a sudden and when it does it is like the sun shining through storm clouds. I was beginning to realise that I was being treated like a servant. They had me going everywhere. I was the one to fetch products from the company’s Kolkata office for all the up-lines and they didn’t pay for my trips. I was the one to record their sermons in seminars and they didn’t pay me for the tapes.
Soon, I was making trips with them to remote villages. There I saw the true face of these charlatans. Naïve villagers were pouring in their measly savings for one elusive chance to make it large and these men and women – my up-lines – were cooking up false tales of success to lure simpletons. More people down the line meant more product sales for the company and fatter paycheques for the team leaders. This is how the pyramid scheme has always worked.
A friend of my father was kind enough to lift the veil from my eyes. As the math became clear, I drifted farther from these conmen. I burnt all the tapes and books the day I finally broke my ties with the cult. There are many such cults operating in India as I speak. There garb – Multilevel Marketing – is as toxic as the money-marketing scam. The damage these pyramid schemes have inflicted upon our economy is unfathomable. Until each one of these baneful traders is weeded out, many will continue to suffer.
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Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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