Poet and DSC Prize winning novelist Jeet Thayil talks about experiments with the word, written and spoken, and why he is still dirty

We are in the narrow alcove to one side of the newly re-opened Oxford Bookstore in Connaught Place. The venue lends itself to a small gathering, like the poetry reading Wislawa Szymborska wrote about. Only this time there are no seats spare, even before it’s time to start the cultural affair.

The place plays host this evening to Still Dirty, a spoken word trio featuring poet and novelist Jeet Thayil as the vocalist and guitarist, Nikhil Vasudevan on drums and Tony Guinard on bass.

“It’s a pleasure to not have to read. The words never change on the page once they are printed, and when you have heard it before like I have, it’s not interesting. This is interesting,” says Thayil, by way of introduction. For the next half an hour or so, Thayil and co. perform various pieces, including a sequence of poems called Sonnets for the Mouth, and the febrile opening sentence of his DSC Prize winning “Narcopolis”. In its wake, there is hearty applause, and scattered lyrics sheets.

“The idea about Still Dirty is that it’s dirty. It’s not clean, it’s not predictable, it’s not practised. It’s improv. Each gig and the musicians in each gig determine the shape, the sound and look of that gig. You can hear the same material, but it will sound different,” says Thayil, who decided on the name after seeing a t-shirt that said 'still sober'.

It is not the musician in Thayil alone that privileges improvisation. “Even in the novel, there were bits that were pure improv, bits that I never expected. And those are my favourite bits in the book, because they kind of happened spontaneously.”

Although writing and music started around the same time, they were initially separate passions for Thayil. “I thought they could never even meet because one was full of long haired hippie freaks and one was full of very formal literary people. But today it’s all mixed. And the same people listen and read the same things. And it’s possible with this event to…take a bit of prose and mix it with the band and see what happens…In fact, I wish I had thought of it a long time ago,” he says.

Thayil thinks of spoken word as music, “and not very differently” from what he does with Sridhar/Thayil, the electric pop-jazz-rock project he has undertaken with Suman Sridhar, whose debut album STD released last year. Punk Bhajan, one of the songs in the album, is a good indicator of the band’s genre-bending, idiosyncratic music.

“…the band is based in Bombay and I am based in Delhi, so every time we have a gig logistically it’s a nightmare…but it’s worth it because it’s a great band. I love to work with Suman. Whenever we work together, very unexpected things happen. But I live in Delhi, and I am travelling a lot, so it’s time I did a solo thing which I can take on the road,” he says.

This performance inaugurates Thayil’s DSC Prize Winner’s Tour 2013, which will see Still Dirty perform in two more cities. Not too exacting for the writer, who says the prize has given him “the gift of time”.

“I don’t have to produce a book, I don’t have to write a paper, I don’t have to give a speech. I just have to do what I do.”