In the holy Hindu city of Varanasi, my family and I stood respectfully back from the entrance to an ancient temple one day last spring, craning our necks a bit to get a glimpse of the elaborate gold idols inside, mindful of the worshippers edging past us to pray. Then the merry priest caught sight of my three-year-old son: He swooped over in a swirl of saffron robes, swept the child into his arms and headed for the inner sanctum of the temple. "Come," he said over his shoulder to us, scrunching Darragh's cheeks. Startled but delighted, we hurried along behind.
The priest filled Darragh's hands with sweet raisins for offerings to the gods (and turned a blind eye when Darragh ate a few). He draped his neck with a marigold garland, and turned him loose on the chains of the big brass temple bells. "God's doorbell!" the priest informed him. For the next half hour, we were treated to a fascinating explanation, in mildly fractured English, of the temple's origins and Shiva's sacred role, delivered over the cacophony of the toddler-pummelled bells. More cheek-squeezing, more raisins, more garlands - we all parted fast friends.
In every Indian temple and palace where my family has encountered other Western visitors - from young backpackers to elderly folk on guided tours - the sight of our son elicits a mix of surprise and alarm. "You're very brave," people say, "to bring him here." So I explain that we aren't just visiting, we live in India, and that in fact it's a wonderful place to travel with a child.
Yet the idea is a hard sell: Friends back home sigh wistfully when we talk of camel rides in Rajasthan and houseboats in Kerala. They hitch their babies up on their hips and say, "I guess it's going to be another 15 years before we can come to India …" Their brains flash with images of disease and crowds and rickety trains. They seem to feel sentenced to Disneyland, cruise ships, the all-inclusive resort - things they know to be kid-friendly - at least until the teen years.
But think of India as just a different kind of Disneyland: It involves a bit more preplanning, a bit more flexibility, but it can be just as relaxing for parents as the Magic Kingdom.
First of all, even the most mundane aspects of life or travel here are filled with things to intrigue and entertain children. The four-hour drive we took to Jaipur from home in Delhi flew by because we spent it counting all the different contraptions that a camel could pull - in front of us - in traffic. There is a temple full of shiny idols and brass bells down every alley. A rickshaw ride is fun, an elephant ride is even better - and for 50 rupees, or about a buck, you can almost always persuade a mahout to detour from wherever he is bound and take you for a quick lumber on his beastie.
But the best part is the Indian attitude to children (if I can be permitted a sweeping stereotype of about 1.2 billion people). Kids are the centre of Indian families, widely indulged and viewed as shared property: Every older lady, it seems, has a special packet of sweets in her purse for doling out to strange children. Foreign children are a relatively rare sight, outside of the big cities, and they are doubly fussed over. All of our best travel experiences - the times we were invited to share briefly in the lives of regular Indian people - have come through doors opened by interest in our son. Nothing in India is specifically intended for children, in the style of a kids' program on the cruise ship, but hotels, restaurant staff and guides will almost always go miles out of their way to entertain and accommodate your little one.
In Srinagar, my partner Meril and I were left to admire the dim interior of a centuries-old wooden mosque from the doorway; only the faithful are admitted to the interior. But a Kashmiri man scooped up our son and disappeared inside with him, pointing out all the intricacies of the papier-mâché decoration. Infidel toddlers, apparently, were most welcome. We took shikara rides on Dal Lake, and when our boatman, Lhasa, learned of Darragh's love of birds, he made long detours through the floating gardens to show us Himalayan kingfishers. He also produced a tiny paddle, the image of his own, and let Darragh "help" paddle us down the lake. In Jaipur, our lovely turbaned waiter whisked our child off each evening after he had eaten - to this day, ask Darragh who his best friend is and he replies, "Rajinder Singh with the smashing hat" - and took him for adventures around the old palace-cum-hotel. It's mildly disconcerting, at first, for a parent with North American anxieties about strangers. But it's also lovely, the communal sense of responsibility and interest in children.