It was a late morning of an early Spring day at Shimulia Ferry Ghat in Mawa. For a regular Spring morning, the sun was shining too brightly. By the time it rose right above our heads, the heat had become scorching - like a summer noon.
Liakat Sheikh, a septuagenarian hotelier, was not in a pleasant mood. It was hard to tell if there was a connection between his mood and the scorching heat but it is better to not bother an angry elderly man on a hot day.
Liakat's New Mollah Hotel and Restaurant has around a dozen tables where a hundred people can be seated. But only a few of the tables were occupied by customers.
"The business is dull today," Liakat said, buttonholed into the conversation.
He continued, "We usually have our best business days on Fridays, Saturdays and other government holidays, when hundreds of customers line up to eat fried Ilish. Business here at Shimulia has been booming ever since the ferry ghat was shifted to here around five years ago.
"But this place has no future now. As soon as the bridge is inaugurated, nobody will come here and this ghat will cease to exist. Our businesses will be gone."
Around a mile south-west of Shimulia Ghat, the Padma Bridge is gearing up for full-fledged operation by March 2022.
The Padma Bridge will benefit around three crore people across 21 south-western districts of Bangladesh. Through better connectivity, people in this region will have opportunities to progress financially. Which is why the whole country is eagerly waiting for the bridge to be completed.
At the backdrop of enthusiasm surrounding Padma Bridge, many hoteliers at Shimulia Ghat are worried that they will lose their businesses in a year.
Fried Ilish fish are sold in around 30 hotels in Shimulia Ghat. Although there is no data on exactly how many kilograms of Ilish is sold here everyday, the local hotel owners' association's secretary Masud Mia gave us an approximate.
"On a regular day, Ilish worth as much as Tk5 lac is sold here. On weekends and government holidays, the sale volume increases to roughly Tk15 lac," said Masud.
Masud is one of the proprietors of Shimulia's famous Nirala Hotel and Restaurant. His father Salam Mia founded the hotel decades ago.
He added, "Our sales record is excellent. On holidays and weekends, we sell upto 200 kilograms of fried Ilish. On weekdays, we sell an average of 50 kilograms."
According to Masud's father Salam, the sales volume would have been much higher if Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA) did not force hoteliers to shut down by 8 pm - a recent action taken by BIWTA as some tourists from Dhaka are allegedly engaged in unethical activities at night.
Unlike Liakat and others, Salam Mia and his sons believe that people from Dhaka will not stop coming to Shimulia Ghat no matter what, to taste the ghat's famous fried Ilish.
"Passengers passing through the south-western districts are not our main customers. On holidays, our customers are mostly tourists from Dhaka," said Murad Khan, the local hotel owners' association's president and proprietor of Bashumati and Ruposhi Bangla Hotel.
We asked him: what if tourists from Dhaka prefer to cross the bridge and go to the hotels in Jazira point on the other side, instead of Shimulia Ghat?
Murad could not hide his concern this time.
"Yes, the chances of such a shift in tourists' interests is legit. But we hope that such a shift will not take place because there are some bigger plans about Shimulia Ghat; plans that could eventually propel the tourists to this side," Murad answered.
The hopeful hoteliers narrated various tales about the bigger plans to assert their optimism, including plans for an eco-park, a port for carrying heavyweight vehicles, a bridge-facing resort and so on.
But is there truly anything in the works to save the tourists' favourite Ilish feast at Mawa?
"Yes, there are certain rumours among hoteliers but no concrete plans have yet been made. But steps that would be taken in the future regarding this space in the Ghat is uncertain. For now, I do not know of any such plan," said the local BITWA officer Mohiuddin Khan.
In that case, what is the future of these hotels?
"Chances of these hotels surviving in Shimulia Ghat are not very promising. Once the bridge is inaugurated, chances are high that this Ghat will lose its appeal," the BITWA officer added.
Hope on the other side
As the sun started to set in Kathalbari Ghat, Sikandar Sharif, the proprietor of Sharif Hotel and Restaurant, was preparing to wrap up the day's business a bit earlier than usual.
He was scheduled to join a religious congregation at a Pir's house the next day. Besides, he plans to move his business to a place he believes has a brighter future.
"I will soon move my hotel to the first Ghat near the bridge at Jazira point. Hundreds of tourists are flocking there and business is excellent. Hopefully, once the bridge is opened, more tourists from Dhaka will crowd there," an optimistic Sharif said, ending the conversation in a hurry.
Many hoteliers like Sharif at Jazira point are anxiously waiting for Padma Bridge's inauguration in hopes of better days waiting ahead.